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Covering The Baseline

• More On March Madness
• Texas Four-Step: Postseason Preview, Part 2
• NCAA Preview - Part 1
• Getting Defensive In The Semifinals
• Focus On The Top Four
• Kansas City Here We Come
• Afternoon Hoops, Mrs. Leonard And A Letter To The Boss
• Big 12 Towers Of Power
• Kansas: Then And Now
• What You See Is Not Always What You Get
• Big 12 Strength Starts At The Point
• Colorado Rising
• Home Court Edge: Fact Or Fiction?
• Ascending To The Top In The Big 12
• Midseason Checkup
• Grinders Wanted
• Upperclassmen Make A Difference
• Big 12 Arms Race
• Hard Jobs Prepare Coaches For Big Stage
• Big 12 "Glue Guys"
• Signed, Sealed and Delivered
• Five Up From the Bottom
• Could This Be The Best Ever?
• 2008-09 Season Archive

Baylor, K-State Look To Reach Indy

March 24, 2010 - Reid Gettys, Big 12 Network

I will be in Houston this weekend - as a fan - cheering on the Baylor Bears and wishing that I could pull off a doubleheader and make it to Salt Lake City for the Wildcats game against Xavier. Both teams have a legitimate chance of making a run at another National Championship for the Big 12! Be honest with me, if in October, I had told you that two Big 12 teams would make it to the Sweet 16, would you have picked Baylor and Kansas State?

Those of us who cover the Big 12 on a regular basis have talked so much the last several years about the rebuilding job at Baylor by Scott Drew and his staff that I think we have taken for granted the magnitude of the journey from where this program was seven years ago to where it is today. Yesterday, I read an article in a national publication discussing the "rebuilding" of Baylor basketball. I cannot imagine a more daunting task than taking over a program in the midst of a player-on-player murder investigation, a program facing certain (and severe) NCAA sanctions, a program that had lost every legitimate Division I player on the roster, and then being expected to compete in the Big 12 Conference. Add into the equation that before last week, Baylor hadn't won an NCAA tournament game in 60 years. With energy, passion, and an endless supply of optimism, Scott Drew has built Baylor from the ashes into a national basketball power! I am not sure what the proper word would be, but I find "rebuilding" to be an understatement!

LaceDarius Dunn enters Friday's NCAA South Regional semifinal against Saint Mary's eight points away from the Baylor single-season scoring record. If you are old enough to remember watching Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson and Terry Teagle play, you understand the historical significance of this record to BU fans. All season long, Tweety Carter has played as well as any point guard in America. The scouting report on the Bears is that to beat them, you have to contain their backcourt. Sam Houston State's triangle and two (man-to-man defense on Tweety and Lace, with the other three defenders playing a triangle zone defense) might have provided the blueprint for what Baylor will face throughout their remaining NCAA Tournament run. Attacking a triangle and two is tricky: do you run your man sets which typically have more movement and concede that the basket will always be protected by the "triangle" of zone defenders or do you run your zone sets, typically predicated on spacing and attacking gaps, thereby allowing the man-to-man coverage to shift your offensive focus away from your two best players? I would assume that Baylor will have spent a significant amount of time this week in practice understanding where and how to attack the triangle and two.

The scouting report on Saint Mary's begins (and ends?) with Omar Samhan He was dominate in the win over Richmond (29 points, 12 rebounds, an efficient 11-of-16 from the field and 7-of-10 on free throws) before becoming unstoppable against Villanova (32 points, 7 boards, 13-of-16 shooting, 6-of-8 at the line). Baylor's response to the big Gael might be described best with numbers: 7, 6-10, 6-10, 6-8. That is the length of the team's frontcourt players. The conventional way to defend a dominant post player in a zone defense is to leave your center behind him and constantly drop either a guard or a wing down in his lap for a double team. The problem with this strategy, however, is that you leave shooters on the perimeter without defenders close enough to contest jump shots. Against Saint Mary's, I would try something different. I would use the center (Lomers) to front Samhan with the length and shot blocking ability of Udoh, Jones, and Acy coming from the back side. This would almost look like a box and one, with the man-to-man defender denying post entry. Although unusual, I would give it a try. One thing is for sure, I would not let Samhan beat me.

Kansas State has posted one of its greatest seasons ever in 2009-10, as the Wildcats have totaled a school-record 28 wins, including 11 in league play, en route to a tie for second place in the Big 12 and a runner-up finish in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship. K-State, the No. 2 seed in the West Regional, advances to its first Sweet 16 in more than 20 years as the Wildcats face No. 6 seed Xavier in Salt Lake City. It will mark the team's 17th appearance in the regional semifinal, including the first since the 1987-88 squad advanced to the Elite Eight.

Last weekend, I covered the first- and second-rounds in Oklahoma City for Westwood One. In describing K-State's performance against North Texas and BYU, I will borrow a line from Dennis Green, "they were who we thought they were!" The Wildcats have embodied Frank Martin's personality. In other words, they played smart, they were tough, they were relentless, they were aggressive, and they were overwhelming with their intensity. No one in the country plays harder, night in and night out, than the Wildcats! I cannot tell you how much fun I had getting to call one of the most impressive individual performances that I have ever seen. I have certainly witnessed many games which have been dominated by one player on the offensive end of the court. I also have called a good number of games that were dominated by one player on the defensive end. I can even think of a few games where a big man was able to dominate on both ends in one game. However, I have never seen a guard dominate a basketball game the way Jacob Pullen dominated a very good BYU team! Maybe more impressive than his 34 points was Jacob's complete shut down of Jimmer Fredette! In the three games proceeding the KSU game, Jimmer had scored 45, 30 and 37 points. Every team that played BYU this year had the same game plan - contain and frustrate Fredette and you beat BYU. Well, that's easier said than done, demonstrated by the fact that BYU won 30 games this year. Pullen's defense was suffocating! To have the energy and intensity to play the kind of defensive game that Jacob played and then come down on the other end and carry his team with 34 points, while limping from a hip bruise, was easily the best individual performance I have seen all season long!

This Sweet 16 game is the second meeting between K-State and Xavier this season. Back in December (in Manhattan), the Wildcats' defense destroyed an otherwise high-powered Xavier offense. The Musketeers average just under 80 points, with seven players shooting 50 percent or better from the field. In their first game, XU was held to just 29 percent shooting, including 27 percent in the first half. Pullen led all scorers with 16 points, including an 8-of-12 effort from the free throw line, while junior Curtis Kelly (15 points and nine rebounds) and sophomore Jamar Samuels (11 points and eight rebounds) each posted near double-doubles. As has been the case all year long when playing K-State, an opposing coach in trying to game plan has to pick his poison! The problem is, regardless what poison you pick, you are likely to be just as dead.

Both games should be great ones as we all enjoy another exciting weekend of NCAA play. Here's to hoping that I am writing another blog next week - this time previewing the Big 12 teams in the Final Four!

 

 


More On March Madness

March 23, 2010 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network

One of the wildest first weekends in NCAA men's basketball history is now in the books and while the dust settles on a crazy few days, let us try to add a little perspective to what we just saw.

First of all, congratulations to Kansas State and Baylor for surviving the madness. The Wildcats not only survived, but thrived. Jacob Pullen was other-worldly in his effort against BYU. K-State advances to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988. And the Cats certainly belong at this dance. In fact, Frank Martin's team has all the right pieces to make a much deeper run in the Tournament. Great guard play, tough defense, an inside presence and terrific coaching. K-State now travels out to Salt Lake City to meet one of this years Cinderella's, Xavier. They've already locked horns, in a game I called on ESPNU earlier this year. The Wildcats used a lock-down defense to dominate that game. Both teams are different, both teams are better. So this should be a great match-up. If the Wildcats survive, they would probably meet No. 1 seed Syracuse. I can't wait to see if Pullen and Clemente can shoot over the Orange zone.

Baylor reaches the regional semifinals for the first time in school history! What an achievement by the Bears. A lot of what has happened over the last couple of years is uncharted water for Baylor. This is its second NCAA appearance in the last three years. And to think BU had only gone four times in their entire history previous to this great run. The job Scott Drew has done to restore this program will go down in history as one of the greatest coaching jobs in college basketball. I liken it to what Bill Snyder did in football at Kansas State. The circumstances are very different, but the results are the same. Baylor takes on another Cinderella, Saint Mary's (boy, they've sure passed out a lot of slippers this year). And if the Bears win that game, it's either Duke or Purdue. Maybe the experience they gained with their run in the NIT last year will serve this team well.

Speaking of the NIT, a quick word of praise to Pat Knight and the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Good luck to them against Mississippi! I hope we see you playing again next week in Madison Square Garden.

Okay, let's get to the rest of it. The Big 12 started off 5-2 after the first two days, and then only two teams survived the round of 32. Heartbreakers for Texas, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Missouri (I'll get to Kansas in a second). I want to point out how tough it is in this day to get to the Sweet 16. Of the teams left standing, only three have made it this far for three consecutive years. Three. That's it. So to play the second weekend is not a given. Having said that, it's still a shock to see the Jayhawks go out this early. They came into the Tournament with the swagger of being the overall No. 1 seed. They'd been ranked at the top of the polls for virtually the entire season. I read somewhere that almost 50 percent of the nation, including the President, picked Kansas to win it all. So to see them on the sidelines already is a huge surprise.

I love March Madness. I love these three weekends where the eyes of the nation are focused on the college game. This tournament does so much good for school pride, not to mention the bottom line. But I would offer that the one downside to all of this is the feeling that there is but one champion and the accomplishments along the way get brushed aside. The Jayhawks had a great year that ended far too soon for them. But I hope history will remember how they won their sixth straight Big 12 Title. How they won the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship again. How they won 33 games against just three losses. Is it a disappointing finish? Well, you just had to see their locker room after their loss to Northern Iowa to know the answer to that. Disappointing doesn't really describe it.

I'm reminded of how tough this tournament can be on the psyche of the individuals that have had the honor of playing in it. Two of my broadcast partners and closest friends - Jon Sundvold and Reid Gettys - were on teams that were No. 1 seeds back in the early 1980's. Sundvold's Missouri Tigers never made it to the Final Four, but they were still a great team that dominated the Big Eight. And Reid's Phi Slamma Jamma Houston Cougar squad went to three Final Four's in four years and yet, never had the chance to hold the Championship trophy. Does that sting? You bet it does. When ESPN Classic replays the final game between Houston and North Carolina State, Reid's friends text him to mention it. For the sake of being kind, I'll not re-hash how that turned out. Reid brushes the barbs aside with humor, but you can still feel his pain.

I say all this to remind us all that it's great to crown a National Champion. But I also think it's important to remember the process and the success stories along the way.

 


Texas Four-Step: Postseason Preview, Part 2

March 16, 2010 - Brad Sham, Big 12 Network

My buddy Rich Zvosec and I got the happy assignment to split the Big 12 Championship previews. It got even happier when eight conference schools received postseason invitations, so Rich took the three northern teams and Oklahoma State. He generously left the state of Texas to me.

So let's start with this: it probably won't happen, but for all Big 12 followers - and especially fans in the southern part of the Big 12 - how delicious is it that Baylor and Texas A&M could both advance to the Sweet 16 in Houston? (I'm leaving the dizzying possibility of a Kansas-Kansas State Final Four matchup to Coach Z.)

I remember the excitement when Texas reached the regional in Houston a few years ago. The possibility of two Texas schools reaching a regional semifinal in Texas shows what enormous strides the sport has made in a relatively short period of time.

Let's begin with the stipulation that there is no easy game in the NCAAs. There are certainly prohibitive favorites. But I was there a few years when Kansas lost a first round game to Bucknell (sorry, Jayhawks). It happens, and that's the story Coach Scott Drew is telling his team in private as they prepare for a Thursday afternoon meeting with Sam Houston State in New Orleans. Playing in NOLA might give the Bears something the other Texas schools won't have opening postseason play: a cheering section.

I enjoyed the fact that publicly; at least on the Big 12 coaches' media conference call Monday, Drew did not shy away from the prospect of getting to Houston. That would take a Thursday win and a Saturday victory over the Notre Dame-Old Dominion winner, absolutely doable for this Bears team. But many a coach wouldn't even hear about looking past the first game, or at least the first weekend. (KU Coach Bill Self, on the same conference call, wouldn't look at a possible Sweet 16 meeting with Michigan State or Maryland. Self proclaimed it a two-game tournament to get to the next two-game tournament. And he has the Number One seeded team in the country.)

Not that Drew was predicting anything or looking past anyone. He just didn't shy away from how great it would be for Baylor to play in the NCAA Tournament in Houston. And in fact, Drew's team probably has the best chance of the Texas squads to be playing next weekend.

Some of that has to do with matchups, although don't think for a moment a "little" team from Huntsville wouldn't be all fired up to knock off a Big 12 team from Texas. But if the Bears handle that business, I for one would like their chances against ODU or Notre Dame. It has mostly to do with the Bears' versatility. They have the guards to handle the pressure of March, and Ekpe Udoh and Quincy Acy give them the capability of also playing big. Could they get past (possibly) Villanova and/or Duke to get to Indy? Who knows? Probably, if they get to Houston, who cares?

Of course, they could meet A&M in a regional final. You don't think Reliant would be rockin' if that happened? The Aggies road is tougher, though, and just because they have to go to Spokane, Washington. Utah State is one of those dangerous 12-seeds that can pull an upset. Surviving that might bring Purdue. But it's a wounded Purdue team (it's also a wounded Aggie team, of course). But if Dash Harris' hand is okay and Khris Middleton keeps shooting well, don't rule it out. These Aggies have toughness. In fact, you could make a good case that if somehow the regional semifinals in Houston matched Baylor against Villanova and A&M against Duke, the Ags would have a better chance to play on Sunday for a trip to a Final Four. In fact, Utah State might be the biggest hurdle the Aggies face to bringing a Maroon tint to Indy in April.

Next question: is New Orleans big enough to handle Baylor, Texas AND Kentucky? The good news for Texas is that in their game with Wake Forest, someone has to win. Texas' late-season woes have been all too well chronicled, but Wake has also lost five of its last six. Damion James is a great enough player and Rick Barnes an accomplished and experienced enough coach that they can get the Horns together enough to win a game. But that's as far as Texas is going. Sorry. I've seen Kentucky up close. Texas doesn't want to.

Tuesday night, Texas Tech becomes the first of the Texas teams to play in postseason when they visit Seton Hall in a first round NIT game. It can be tougher in the early rounds of the NIT because you might be playing a true road game - which Tech is. But they have a gifted point guard in John Roberson and a tough guy in Mike Singletary. If the Raiders can find a way to play defense and keep their composure it's a contest they can win.

It's been a banner year in Big 12 basketball, and it's not done yet. Don't be even a little surprised if there are two Big 12 teams in the Final Four.

You figure out which two.

 


NCAA Preview - Part 1

March 15, 2010 - Rich Zvosec, Big 12 Network

As the No. 1 RPI-rated conference in the country, the Big 12 was rewarded with a record number of invitations (7) to the NCAA Tournament. Additionally, Kansas was selected as the top overall seed in the tourney. Kansas State (No. 2) achieved its highest seed in school history. Oklahoma State grabbed a No. 7 seed, while Missouri slipped to a No. 10 spot.

Let's take a closer look at what the following teams - Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, and Oklahoma State - will need to do to have a chance at grabbing the brass ring in Indianapolis. By the way, it is the first time since 1993 that the Jayhawks, Wildcats and Tigers will be dancing at the same time. For the Cowboys, it will be the second straight appearance under Coach Travis Ford.

Kansas
I don't think there is a more complete team in the field. Earlier in the season, I had a couple of Kentucky games. They are talented, but the Jayhawks have more depth and more experience.

Watching the Big 12 Championship Game, you could see how difficult it was Kansas State to get a clean look at the basket. The Jayhawks defense is stifling and that is what it takes to win a championship. If Cole Aldrich doesn't get you, then they have Marcus Morris and his brother, Markieff, there to take it away. However, it starts with their perimeter defense. Taylor, Collins and Morningstar are three of the best on the ball defenders in college basketball. They get on you and don't let you breathe.

Offensively, they have the best aircraft carrier in the game. If you single cover Aldrich, he scores. If you double him, he passes to an open shooter like Xavier Henry or Tyrel Reed and they bury the 3-pointer.

Looking at the brackets, I think Kansas has the toughest region with Big Ten co-champions Michigan State and Ohio State as well as ACC champion, Maryland, in their pathway to Indianapolis.

After opening with Lehigh, KU gets the winner of UNLV-Northern Iowa. None of these teams has the power inside to hold down the Jayhawks. The following weekend could see them face Maryland or Michigan State. Once again the depth of Kansas will be too much. Their final test will either be Ohio State - with player of the year candidate Evan Turner, or a possible rematch with Tennessee.

It won't matter. The Jayhawks are too deep and too complete not to make it to the Final Four.

Kansas State
My play by play partner, Mitch Holtus, dubbed them the Dobermans for the way they get after it. Coach Frank Martin has them swarming the ball and the boards like a hungry dog going after a bone. Their ability to convert turnovers and offensive rebounds to points will take them far into the tourney. The Wildcat defense will keep them in games until their offense kicks in. Being able to beat an opponent on the defensive end is a key to winning six games in a row.

The Wildcats open with North Texas in Oklahoma City and then will face either Florida or BYU. Their toughness and guard play will be too much for these opponents, which mean a possible matchup with Pittsburgh or Xavier. Both of these teams are tough as nails, but I believe the guard duo of Clemente and Pullen will be too much.

Making it past this round could mean a matchup with Syracuse and I believe that the rebounding tenacity of K-State will win out over the Orange zone.

If Clemente and Pullen stay hot the Wildcats will be playing Kansas for the fourth time this year in Indianapolis.

Missouri
They are like a prize fighter that has switched from right to lefty. With the loss of two all-league players, DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons, they had to develop a new go-to guy. That was Justin Safford. However, with Safford injuring his knee the Tigers have taken a body shot. That being said, Coach Anderson has a style of play that could still help Mizzou go deep in the tourney.

Looking at the brackets, I think the committee has done the Tigers a solid favor. In their first and potential second round matchup they play Clemson and possibly West Virginia. Neither team has an overpowering inside game which means the Tigers interior will not be exposed. If they can get past the first weekend then once again the other side of the bracket (Marquette, Washington, New Mexico) is not very strong when it comes to inside play.

Two keys will be the ability to turn opponents over, going even on the glass and guys like Kim English, Marcus Denmon, and Michael Dixon shooting it well from beyond the arc.

Oklahoma State
Coach Travis Ford has done a remarkable job of getting the Cowboys this far. He has built his team around James Anderson and Anderson has delivered. Lacking a consistent inside presence is tough, but losing Ray Penn to injury has hurt their point guard play and taken away any depth they had.

Having a marquee player will lift the Cowboys over a surging Georgia Tech team. I still don't think the Yellow Jackets are for real. In the second game, OSU will get Ohio State. This will be a matchup of two of college basketball's best scorers. Evan Turner and James Anderson could combine for 80 points, but I think the changing defenses of the Cowboys will keep the Buckeyes off balance.

This game could come down to a role player having a big game. Someone like Matt Pilgrim or Marshall Moses could be the difference. This will be the toughest matchup of the tourney for any of these four teams in the early rounds.

All-in-all I think that three out of four of these teams have a chance to be playing on the second weekend. And I still believe that Kansas and Kansas State will be end up playing each other in Indianapolis. It will only be fitting as they both start the tourney in Oklahoma City and I am sure that their respective fans will be pulling for a fourth game.

Three things that need to happen for a team to win it all. First, you have to have a little luck (win at least one close game), second make your free throws and third, stay healthy.

As the song goes, "The ball is tipped"..........March Madness has arrived! Time for the Big 12 to show its stuff!

 


Getting Defensive In The Semifinals

March 12, 2010 - Doug Bell, Big 12 Network

I had a great seat for the Big 12 Championship quarterfinals, at mid-court on press row, just in front of the first row at the Spirit Center. I loved it, watching the best team in the country in Kansas, and listening to the raucous crowd, which included an elderly lady from Kansas who sat directly behind me rooting for her beloved Jayhawks. Time after time, with her raspy voice, she barked out, "defense ", "help", and "recover!". This was a person who knows the game and obviously appreciates what it takes to win championships - YOU MUST DEFEND!

It's no surprise tonight's first semifinal game features the Big 12's top two defensive teams. Texas A&M is first in scoring defense (65.8 ppg), while the Jayhawks are first in field goal percentage defense (.398). When you compare this year's Kansas defense to the National Championship team two years ago, the numbers are almost identical in every category.

The biggest difference from two years ago is that Xavier Henry is playing the role of Brandon Rush, the human octopus. Henry hasn't reached that level of elite defense just yet, but many of his mistakes are covered up by Cole Aldrich. On the other end, the Aggies rely on their two seniors, Bryan Davis and Donald Sloan to set the tone and they do it with the three P's (Precision, Power, and Passion). In the only meeting of the season, KU won 59-54 and I expect the same kind of slugfest where every possession will be a struggle. Look to see if Bryan Davis gets in foul trouble. He did in the first meeting and Kansas took advantage.

Speaking of passion, did you happen to experience the first half performance of the Kansas State - OSU game? The Wildcats put together their best 20 minutes of the season and it was based on relentless, in your face, suffocating defense that completely overwhelmed the Cowboys. You have to see them in person to appreciate their tenacity, and just how physical they can be at the point of attack. "That's who we are.", KSU head coach Frank Martin told me afterwards, "For some reason we got away from that the last two games."

The Baylor Bears are the most improved defensive team in the Big 12 this season, and the only one of the semifinalists that plays primarily a zone defense. LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter up top and tall, long athletes down low anchored by the Baylor fly swatter Ekpe Udoh have proven to be a very effective combination. The group held Texas to only 67 points. Baylor is very adept at getting long rebounds which ignites their offense. The two teams met once in Waco and K-State squeezed out a 76-74 win. The BU guards are not bothered by ball pressure, which will leave it in the hands of the big men down low and that's where Udoh may hold the edge.

I turned around late in the KU game to catch a glimpse of the female Jayhawk fan, who must have known Phog Allen personally. As I gave her a nod, she reciprocated and told me, "We better play with more fire (tomorrow) on the defensive end, or else!" She definitely knows the importance of how you MUST DEFEND!

 


Focus On The Top Four

March 10, 2010 - Reid Guttys, Big 12 Network

A conference RPI of No. 1, a conference strength-of-schedule ranked No. 2, top five ranked teams all season, great games, thrilling finishes and seven NCAA "Locks" going into the Big 12 Championships! For all Big 12 basketball fans, what more could you ask for leading into the second week of March? Let's look into my crystal ball at the quarterfinals, with an emphasis on the top four seeds in reverse order.

Texas A&M
I am not sure that many people outside of College Station realize that Mark Turgeon has now won more games in his first three seasons than any other coach in Texas A&M history (including you know who). If, at the start of the season, you picked A&M to finish tied for second in the conference, and you kept the faith even after Derrick Roland's horrific season ending injury, I would suggest that you swing by Vegas on your way to Kansas City! What a remarkable testimony to team basketball, great chemistry and an outstanding coaching job! Donald Sloan emerged as a true superstar, David Loubeau, and Dash Harris improved as much as anyone in the league, B.J. Holmes accepted a role as spark plug off the bench, and Bryan Davis continued to work harder and play tougher than anyone else on the floor. Talk about a team that Aggie fans can be proud of, this should go down as one of the all time favorites in College Station!

With no slight intended, although they are capable, the Cornhuskers have not shown much to suggest a Texas A&M-Nebraska matchup in the quarterfinals. So let's take a quick look at A&M versus Missouri. During the regular season game, A&M "upset" MU in Columbia. (Note: any team - other than Kansas - that beats Missouri in Columbia qualifies as an upset). Statistically, A&M and Mizzou are two of the best defensive teams in conference, albeit it with radically different styles. The Tigers lead the country in steals (AGAIN!) and forced a league-leading 19 turnovers per game. Just over 30 percent of Missouri's total points have come off of turnovers. The Aggies, on the other hand, have the No. 1 scoring defense in league play. The defensive strengths are tenacious on-the-ball pressure and outstanding weakside help. The fact that they rarely gamble on steals and do such a good job of maintaining their defensive integrity (man-ball-basket awareness), makes the Aggies collectively better rebounders than they are individually.

If you like contrasting styles and outstanding defense, set your DVR so you can watch this one again when you get home.

Baylor
Let's suppose that it is October, you are a Big 12 coach, and you think that your team might be pretty good. Would you rather;

  • be picked second in the preseason polls, have a historic season, and finish tied for second, thereby meeting such lofty expectations? Or would you rather,
  • be picked 10th in the preseason polls, have a historic season, and finish tied for second, thereby absolutely destroying even the most fanatical fan's expectations?
That was a discussion that I had with Scott Drew after attending a luncheon in Houston at which he was the keynote speaker. As Scott was walking off, the last thing he said to me was "I just don't think anybody has a clue as to how good Ekpe Udoh is going to be this season." Leave it to the coach of the league's Baptist school to utter such accurate words of prophecy! I took some heat last Saturday in Studio 66 for putting Ekpe Udoh on the All-Big 12 First Team ahead of Cole Aldrich. If you have listened to me broadcast a KU game or if you have listened to me talk about the Jayhawks, you know how much respect and how much I like Cole Aldrich and his ability to affect the game on both ends. However, I stick with my comments. Consider this, Ekpe scored more points, grabbed more rebounds, blocked more shots, and shot a higher field goal percentage than Cole. I'm not sayin'.......I'm just sayin'....One thing is for sure, Scott Drew knew in October what everyone else knows today. Ekpe Udoh is a beast!

The Bears get the winner of Texas / Iowa State in the quarterfinals. Can you think of any two teams in the country coming off of more opposite last games of the season? The Cyclones ruined Senior Night in Manhattan with a shocking upset of KSU in overtime. Texas on the other hand, turned Senior Night in Waco into one of the biggest celebrations in the history of Baylor basketball! I spent a good part of Studio 66 last Saturday arguing why I thought all signs were pointing towards Texas regaining their swagger and playing up to their potential heading into Kansas City. After getting crushed by Baylor, maybe not so much! My crystal ball says we are looking at a rematch of Baylor / Texas, but ISU will show up with some much needed confidence and a little bounce to their step.

Kansas State
Those of you in Manhattan, take a deep breathe, back up out of the trees, and let's take a look at the forest. Frank Martin is the Big 12 Coach of the Year. He has elevated your program to unprecedented heights or at least to heights not seen in almost 50 years! Your administration did a great job locking Frank up for the foreseeable future. (Note: trust me, a number of high profile programs were going to come hard at Frank in the offseason!) You are one win away from a school record, you climbed to No. 5 in the rankings, and going into Saturday night, you were a favorite to be a No. 1 Seed in the NCAA Tournament. The reality is that your program has climbed to a level that last Wednesday's game was relevant and important to you and to Kansas! Frank and his staff have built an identity of toughness within the basketball community that very few teams in America can match.

There, now do you feel better? While the loss on Saturday was shocking (understatement), ultimately, Frank will use that game as his single most effective teaching point for the remaining four weeks. It is my opinion that the Wildcats play at their best when they are angry and in a foul mood! No disrespect intended towards ISU, but a home loss on Senior Night to the No. 11 team in the conference will certainly "foul up" the mood!

My quarterfinal crystal ball shows a matchup with another team that fouled up your mood earlier in the year, Oklahoma State. I don't think that OSU has the depth to be the first team in the history of the conference to win four games in four days, but they are certainly the odds on favorite as having the most potential to do it! Tough decision for Frank and his staff - do you take your best defender (Dominque Sutton) and try to contain (notice I did not say "try to stop") James Anderson, or do you concede that he will get his 26 points and commit to shutting down Obi and Keaton? In the previous meeting, the whole "stop James Anderson thing" did not work out so well - he went off for 30! Anderson does such a good job of moving without the ball and then catching and shooting, that he is very difficult to double team. I might be tempted to try a triangle and two on Anderson and Paige and make OSU beat me with Obi initiating the offense and making Pilgrim and Moses knock down jump shots from 15'. This should be a great game!

Kansas
Back in the day (early 80's), I did not consider any of the three seasons in which I played in the Final Four or even the years that we played in consecutive National Championship Games a success. Why? Well, if the ultimate goal is a National Championship and you don't win a National Championship the season was not a success, right? Thankfully, within a few years of the end of my playing career, I realized that this was total nonsense! It is within that context that I stand back and appreciate the Kansas Jayhawks. In a season in which the Big 12 was the strongest conference in the country, the Jayhawks dominated the conference (AGAIN) and were within one game of perfection in league play! I have said this several times over the last couple of weeks, our obsession with the National Championship has, in my opinion, caused too many people to take for granted the sustained excellence of Bill Self's program. Superior talent and National Championship expectations does not in any way diminish the accomplishment of six consecutive Big 12 regular season titles! All who argue that the regular season has lost its significance were not in Allen Fieldhouse last Wednesday evening for the Sunflower Showdown! What an atmosphere and what a regular season!

If you are an opposing fan and you want a frightening thought, while Kansas has played well, they still can play better. As is custom with Bill's teams, the Jayhawks are still improving! Tyshawn Taylor seems to be properly refocused, Xavier is shooting the ball better than anyone in the country, Cole has been dominate (when he gets touches!) on both ends of the floor and Sherron might be the most important player to his team of anyone in America! Add in the defense and shooting of Morningstar and Reed off the bench and sudden increased contributions from Markeiff, and not only are the Kansas Jayhawks the odds on favorites to win the Championship in Kansas City, but they are my pick to win another National Championship!

 


Kansas City Here We Come

March 8, 2010 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network

My first thought after watching Iowa State upset Kansas State at Bramlage Coliseum Saturday evening was...this is going to be a wild and crazy Phillips 66 Big 12 Basketball Championship. If a team with only three Conference wins previous to that game could go into the Octagon of Doom and beat the fifth-ranked team in the country, than I'm convinced anything could happen this week at the Sprint Center. Thousands of college basketball fans will descend on my adopted hometown of Kansas City, and we should all come prepared to be stunned, surprised and amazed.

Before we break down the first round of action, let me congratulate all the winners of the individual and team awards to date. They are all richly deserving of the recognition, and I feel the best is yet to come.

My broadcast partner, Reid Gettys, will provide analysis of the quarterfinal action sometime after the first round is in the books. Our studio host, Doug Bell, will take it from there. So let's take a peak at what we might expect on Wednesday starting at 11:30 a.m. CT.

In our first game of the day, Colorado and Texas Tech will meet. The scouting reports will be fresh for this one as these two teams clashed just last Saturday in Boulder. In that game, the one-two punch of Cory Higgins and Freshman of the Year, Alec Burks, was just too much for the Red Raiders. The Buffaloes are one of the hottest teams coming to town as Colorado has won three in a row. Tech will need to regroup fast - they've lost seven in a row. They are hoping for a singular performance from Mike Singletary like we saw last year. Both teams have hopes of a possible NIT berth, and that may be the stakes for this match-up.

Next on the slate, the Missouri Tigers and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. In their two meetings this year, Mizzou came out on top, and they did it in convincing fashion. Mike Anderson's group won both games by double figures. Missouri finished higher than most predicted. When are we doing to learn? The Tigers made a run to the Elite Eight last season, and despite losing a lot of firepower, there is a lot of talent left behind. When they hit shots, they can beat anyone in the country. This will be a stiff challenge, and I expect Missouri to advance.

In prime-time, Bedlam starts us off at 6 p.m. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State bring their heated rivalry to center stage for the second year in a row in the Championship. These teams split their two games this season. However, the Sooners are a shell of themselves since their overtime victory over the Cowboys back in January. The loss of leading scorer Willie Warren has proved to be a tough challenge for OU as they have lost eight in a row. Oklahoma State features the Big 12 Player of the Year - James Anderson. Not only is this talented junior forward leading the Conference in scoring, he's playing his best basketball right now. Does Oklahoma have anything left in the tank? At least they'll have the motivation of meeting their cross-state rival.

The nightcap on Wednesday will feature the team that pulled off the biggest upset of the year in Iowa State against the team that may be the most upset coming to the Sprint Center. This season hasn't played out the way the Texas Longhorns thought it would. After reaching the heights of a No. 1 ranking, Texas has fallen on hard times. Injuries haven't helped as the Longhorns lost two starters to knee problems. There is still so much talent on this UT squad. It wouldn't surprise me if they suddenly put it all together and made a deep run in the Championship. This is the time of year when Dexter Pittman came on strong last season, if he does that again, don't bet against the Longhorns. Waiting for them will be the Cyclones - who just knocked off the Wildcats. Craig Brackins, like Anderson, is playing his best basketball of the season. Loads of NBA type talent on the court for this one.

We've never seen a team come all the way from day one to win the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship. Will this be the year? It's an incredibly tough challenge to play four games in four days against this level of competition. But like I said at the beginning, nothing will surprise me this year. It's going to be fun to watch. See you in Kansas City!

 


Afternoon Hoops, Mrs. Leonard And A Letter To The Boss

March 5, 2010 - Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network

There's something special about weekday afternoon sporting events. Most of us love the first two days of March Madness. Hoopaholics and casual basketball fans alike cherish the first Thursday and Friday afternoons of the NCAA Tournament. We also like to attend an occasional afternoon major league baseball game. Heck, I'm old enough to remember when the World Series was played on weekday afternoons. It's why I'm very excited about the Big 12 Championship coming soon to Sprint Center in Kansas City and why thinking about it takes me back to my childhood.

Enter Mrs. Leonard, one of the toughest elementary school teachers ever. She was a "hard-scrabble" battle-ax with blue-gray hair and horn-rimmed glasses. In fact, her glasses were so sharp whalers could use them as harpoons. Mrs. Leonard scared the "crud" out of me. Yet, I took the gamble. The gamble was sneaking a radio into my desk so I could listen to the World Series. I had carefully threaded the earpiece up my shirt and into my left ear. I was looking at Mrs. Leonard and nodding my head every so often as if I was paying attention to the mathematics lesson and taking copious notes. Really, I was keeping a crude scorecard of the game.

Mrs. Leonard was too crafty. A few minutes later she made a 270-degree maneuver around the classroom and made a rear guard action that rendered me defenseless. I was busted. I knew this probably meant some sort of detention or worse yet, a call to my parents. Instead, Mrs. Leonard didn't say a word and confiscated my covert equipment.

The following day, Mrs. Leonard made me stand in front of the class and told of my transgressions of the previous day. I was expecting the worst, possibly a public beheading like William Wallace suffered on the movie Braveheart. To my shock, Mrs. Leonard said it would be good if EVERYONE could enjoy the World Series. She had made arrangements with the principal to have a TELEVISION brought into class and we watched the World Series together. I would have charged large castles for Mrs. Leonard after that.

That leads me to an open letter to all bosses in Big 12 country. I'm thrilled to present three of the four afternoon games of the upcoming Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship on the Big 12 Network, ESPN Full Court and ESPN360.com. Brent Musburger and Bob Knight on ESPN2 will present a fourth game. So, I offer this plea....

Dear Boss of a Big 12 Area Company:
I'm asking your permission to let your employees watch the afternoon games of the Big 12 Championship on the Big 12 Network, ESPN Full Court, ESPN360.com or ESPN2. Hopefully, your people will be able to get their work done, but you really don't want them to miss the nation's number one RPI conference do you?

For example, the event starts with the "8-9" game on Wednesday, March 10. If you don't allow your employees to watch this game, they could miss the start of something big. Last year, the ninth-seeded Baylor Bears went all the way to the championship game. Moreover, since that game the Bears have totally changed the perception of their program. Baylor has won 28 games and lost only eight since they won the "8-9" game last year. Maybe Texas Tech could be this year's Baylor, but if you're not watching, you'll miss it.

The next game on Wednesday afternoon features the "5-12" match up. If you don't allow your employees to watch this game, you could miss the "big upset". Colorado won this game as a 12 seed two years ago. ANY OF THE COACHES who could finish with the 12th seed has the ability to orchestrate an upset in this game.

I'm also asking that you'll let your employees watch the Thursday afternoon games on March 11. The first game will be on ESPN2 and will feature the 8-9 winner vs. No. 1 seed Kansas. Do you want your employees to miss watching one of the best teams in college basketball? Kansas is very good and fun to watch on both the offensive and defensive ends.

Please let your employees watch the "4-5" game on the Big 12 Network. I'll be back for this game and as you know, the No. 4 seed vs. the No. 5 seed is one of the best games of any tournament. This game could feature Missouri against Baylor or Texas A&M or could be a match-up of bitter rivals like Texas/Texas A&M, Baylor/A&M or Texas/Baylor. No matter who plays in this game, you have to let your workers watch it. The No. 4 seed has won eight of these games and the No. 5 has won five times in the "4-5" history of the Championship.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. In the name of Mabel Leonard and all Big 12 fans everywhere, please let your people watch these games on the Big 12 Network, ESPN Full Court, ESPN 360.com or ESPN2.

Yours in winning,

Mitch Holthus
Big 12 Network Afternoon Specialist

 


Big 12 Towers Of Power

March 2, 2010 - Chad McKee, Big 12 Network

From Raef LaFrentz to Blake Griffin, the Big 12 has had its share of Towers of Power. We're talking about the big space eaters, guys 6-10 and above who impact the game on both ends of the floor. This season is no different. Today we break them down in three categories.

Excuse me while I kiss the sky
It's appropriate that we use a line from a Jimi Hendrix song as these three players stand out like the space needle in the skyline of Seattle, Jimi's hometown. All three will be first-round draft picks when their days in the Big 12 are done.

Cole Aldrich, 6-11, Jr., Kansas
He's a huge reason why the Jayhawks have claimed a share of their sixth-straight regular season title. Kansas leads the league in scoring defense (63) and field goal defense (37%). Aldrich ranks second in the Big 12 in blocked shots (3.75) and defensive rebounds (7.0). And he's as intelligent as he is talented. Aldrich was recently named Academic All-American of the Year.

Ekpe Udoh, 6-10, Jr., Baylor
No newcomer in the Big 12 has had a bigger impact on his team. The Michigan transfer has established a new league record for blocks (122 and counting) and is second in rebounding (10.3). He's won games with late plays as well. "Epke doesn't mind having a lot of pressure on him, and he performs well under it," Bears' Head Coach Scott Drew said after Udoh's tip-in beat Missouri. The Bears are allowing five fewer points per game, opponents shooting percentage is down from 43% to 38% and, perhaps biggest of all, they have gone from a -2 rebounding margin to +8 this season.

Craig Brackins, 6-10, Jr., Iowa State
He's not the defensive presence that Aldrich and Udoh are, but he's more polished offensively. Brackins' numbers are down, but the emergence of Marquis Gilstrap has lessened Brackins' load. Defenses have been able to sag in on Brackins with the Cyclones' top two three-point shooters Lucca Staiger (left to play pro ball in Germany) and Jamie Vanderbeken (injuries) gone. Still, he's eighth in scoring and sixth in rebounding in the Big 12.

Must-Have Middle Men
These guys are the pillars on which their teams' frontcourts are built. The ones who may not grab all of the headlines, but coaches would hate to live without.

Bryan Davis, 6-9, Sr., Texas A&M
The Aggies expected to and did lose DeAndre Jordan to the NBA draft, but were stunned when Chinemelu Elonu left for the draft after his junior year. Fans feared a doughnut defense and no offensive punch inside. Davis has averaged 8.6 rebounds since conference play started. The Aggies are last in the Big 12 in three-point percentage, but second in two-point shooting thanks in large part to Davis' inside work.

Dexter Pittmam, 6-10, Sr., Texas
Pittman is averaging just 19 minutes per game, but shoots 68 percent from the floor. He's sixth in the Big 12 in rebounding (8.4) and third with two blocks per game.

Curtis Kelly, 6-8, Jr., Kansas State
The Connecticut transfer is a big reason why the Wildcats are second in the Big 12 in offensive rebounding. Kelly averages two blocks per game and has been a rock for Kansas State while freshmen Wally Judge and Jordan Henriquez-Roberts develop.

Still Under Construction
These guys have shown promise that they will be the next generation of Big 12 stars in the middle.

Brian Jorge Diaz, 6-11, RSFr., Nebraska
Diaz was born in the Bronx, but grew up in Puerto Rico. He redshirted last season and has contributed nine points and four rebounds per game while shooting 53 percent from the floor.

Tiny Gallon, 6-9, Fr., Oklahoma
The McDonald's All American has struggled at times adapting to the college level, but shows flashes that he can be a star. See last Saturday's 23-point, 15-rebound effort against Baylor.

David Loubeau, 6-9, So., Texas A&M
He compliments Davis very well. Loubeau had a recent six-game stretch where he averaged 14 points and seven rebounds per game, including 17 points and eight boards in an upset win at Missouri.

The great part about this list is that all but two of them are underclassmen. Though Aldrich and Udoh may opt for the NBA draft after this season as well, Big 12 fans can look forward to sightseeing at these skyscrapers for several seasons to come.

 


Kansas: Then And Now

February 26, 2010 - Paul Splittorff, Big 12 Network

Kansas, with their blowout win on Monday against Oklahoma, clinched at least a tie for its sixth straight Big 12 title. That equals Kentucky's SEC titles in the late 60's and early 70's, it surpasses Duke's five straight ACC titles of the late 90's and trails only UCLA's 13 consecutive crowns under John Wooden in the 60's and 70's. This is clearly a historical run by the Jayhawks.

As the regular season winds down and the tournament season picks up, let's compare this Kansas team to their national championship team of two years ago. We can break it down by individual skills and what the players bring to their position, as well as comparing the two teams statistically.

The first seven years of Bill Self's tenure at KU, he used mostly a nine-man rotation with five perimeter players and four inside. This year, because of what Cole Aldrich brings, he has gone with an eight man rotation with five rotating on the perimeter but only three inside. Two years ago, the typical starting lineup had two seniors, two juniors, and a sophomore with two seniors, a sophomore and a freshman coming off the bench. The last two games this year, he has started one senior, one junior, two sophomores and a freshman with two juniors and one sophomore coming off the bench. Give a slight advantage to the national champs because of the seniors, but it's not like this team lacks experience. Remember, Brady Morningstar is a redshirt junior and Marcus and Markieff Morris piled up big minutes as freshmen.

Both teams featured combo guards which gave them the ball-handling skills out front with scoring potential. Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers were a great tandem with each having outstanding assist to turnover ratios. Chalmers will always be known as one of the best clutch players Kansas has ever had, while Robinson will be remembered as one of the best lockdown defenders in school history and no one on the current KU team will equal his 79 steals of two years ago.

Sherron Collins is a bulldog of a player with guard skills equal to Chalmers and Robinson. There was a period of time two years ago, around midseason, that Collins could have been the 'go to guy' on that team. Tyshawn Taylor has been a little inconsistent this year, but is as quick off the dribble and as talented as any of the other guards and appears to have more confidence now that he is back in the starting lineup. I give this years' team the edge with perimeter players off the bench in Morningstar and Tyrel Reed over Rodrick Stewart.

The small forward position is a real interesting comparison because the Jayhawks feature two players who came in with 'one and done' labels. They were similar in size and talent. Brandon Rush (13.3 ppg) and Xavier Henry (13.5 ppg) can score from deep or put it on the floor and finish at the rim. Rush was a terrific defender, so let's give him the edge on that end of the floor. Brandon, of course was not a 'one and done' as he was one of two players in the history of the Conference to be named All-Big 12 First Team three times. Xavier is still writing his chapter.

The power forward position would match Darrell Arthur and Marcus Morris. Arthur would be a little stronger inside, although the rebound average (6.3) is exactly the same. Morris is more versatile because he can step out, even to the 3-point line. He is also a better ball handler that can create scoring opportunities. In spite of that, both average 13 points. One thing that shouldn't be overlooked is that Arthur was more 'foul prone'.

The real difference in the two teams is at the post position with Cole Aldrich. Two years ago, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun manned the number five spot. Jackson had a terrific senior year, maybe even a surprise senior year with 11 points and seven rebounds per game. Kaun was not as good an offensive player, but was longer and stronger and could defend and rebound. Aldrich does it all. He brings the game to a completely different level as he averages a double-double, alters shots and does it without fouling. By the end of the season, he will have more blocked shots than Kaun, Jackson and Arthur combined. He allows the Jayhawks to have a three-man rotation up front.

To me, the only discernable difference is at the post position and Cole Aldrich gives this team a completely different dimension. At every other spot, although there are slight advantages one way or the other, it would come down to a personal preference.

A statistical analyst isn't going to settle much either. Both teams had four players averaging double figures. Here is a breakdown of the offensive and defensive numbers:

  2008 2010
Points Per Game 80.5 82.6
FG Percentage: 50.8 48.8
3FG Percentage: 39.7 40.0
FT Percentage: 70.2 69.4
Turnovers: 13.2 12.7
Points Allowed: 61.5 63.0
FG Pct. Defense: 37.9 36.9
3FG Pct. Defense: 32.8 33.4
Rebound Margin: +7.9 +7.4
Blocked Shots: 5.9 6.6
Steals 8.9 8.5
Opp. Turnovers: 15.6 14.7

The numbers are incredibly close on all accounts. The current team scores a little more, gives up a few more points, blocks a few more shots and steals a few less balls. Bill Self will point to the conference opponents shooting 39 percent from behind the arc against this team as a potential problem.

The bottom line is, these are both Bill Self teams. The key word is TEAM.

They play well together, have balance, have size and are tough defensively. The national championship team didn't have a scorer in the top 20 in the Conference. This year, no one is in the top 13. In 2008, two players were named to the All-Big 12 First Team and that is probably what will happen this season. Self's teams always play great defense. Only once in his years at KU did his team NOT rank in the top eight in the nation in defensive field goal percentage. The 2009-10 squad is first nationally in the latest rankings. His teams are always unselfish. Both this team and the '08 edition had an assist on 60 percent of its field goals.

These two teams are so closely matched, that this year's group could also come home with the BIG trophy. But as good as the 2008 collection was, it wasn't easy. Remember, if Davidson had hit their last shot, Kansas wouldn't have made it out of the Detroit Regional and if Chalmers doesn't hit his shot in San Antonio, Memphis would have the trophy. I'd anticipate at least a couple games this year coming down to the last possession and Kansas fans - and Big 12 followers - should enjoy the ride.

 


What You See Is Not Always What You Get

February 23, 2010 - Doug Bell, Big 12 Network

The snow had just started to fall in Lubbock ,Texas and according to weather forecasters, it was going to be one of those doozy snowstorms. Luckily, I made it in before the sky opened up, and so did the Kansas State basketball team.

We both pulled up at the hotel at the same time, and as the large group found its way into the lobby with all sorts of luggage and gear, I actually found myself stepping onto the elevator with Wildcats Head Coach Frank Martin, he of the super intense sideline antics! You can only imagine what was going through my brain? I didn't want to make eye contact, in fear of getting one of those now infamous stare-downs he gives officials from the sidelines.

Actually, what I discovered was the complete opposite of any pre-conceived images you might have of the KSU third-year head coach. In fact, what you see is not anywhere close to what you get. There was Coach Martin getting on the elevator with his wife Anya and three children Brandon, Amalia, and Christian. The family has been trying to travel with Dad when they can, just to spend some quality time together. You see, this time of the season gets rather hectic for coaches, and time at home is a premium.

A few hours later at practice, I watched Coach Martin and his staff go to work with the sixth-ranked team in the nation, the highest ranking for the Wildcats since 1962. His youngest son Christian was sitting on the sidelines, watching his Dad intently. My first impression, as the Wildcats went through warm-ups and then a 90 minute practice was the chemistry I witnessed on the court was amazing. This was a team that went to work, but also enjoyed being there. They laughed and joked early, and knew exactly when it was time to go to work. This is an experienced team, especially in the backcourt, where Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen have played in so many important games, and they set the tone during practice.

Coach Martin was quiet for the most part and observed his top guy's play defense and offense, and without ever blowing a whistle, was able to get their attention when the time was right. I enjoyed listening during timeouts when he called the team together at mid-court for a teaching point with the grease board. I'm telling you, this guy can coach. At one point, he even went to the sidelines to make sure Christian was doing okay. That's something most fans don't see - Frank Martin the family guy. That's really been the blueprint of his plan to rebuild the K-State program. It all started when he came to Manhattan with Bob Huggins four years ago. After Huggins left for West Virginia, Martin was given the keys to the castle, and he has quickly put his stamp on a program that has worked its way into the upper echelon of the Big 12, not to mention the national rankings. His staff is close, and there is no denying that he and associate head coach Dalonte Hill have formed a terrific tandem in finding and signing top recruits. I liked the way everybody on the staff was involved at practice. They all had a reason for being there.

Martin has been whistled for three techincals this season, the last during the Oklahoma State game that he admits hurt his team in a 73-69 loss. He has toned it down since then, picking his spots to discuss things with officials. Don't get me wrong, the stare and intensity are still there. With games upcoming against Missouri and Kansas, the 43-year old South Florida native will be charged up, like one of those Indy car racing engines, getting his team to play with the passion that he demonstrates on the sidelines. I sense this is a coach who feels comfortable in his surroundings, and is ready for a season ending run into the NCAA tourney.

K-State has found its guy, and he is making a name for himself and a home for his family in Manhattan. I don't think he's going to sit down for a cup of hot tea anytime soon, or smile at an official who blows a call, but after spending time with the K-State basketball family, I really believe that in the case of the head coach, appearances can be deceiving.

 


Big 12 Strength Starts At The Point

February 19, 2010 - Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network

The Big 12 Conference is the deepest league in the country in terms of quality from top-to-bottom, one-through-12. When I look at the teams as a whole as well as individually, it is impressive how good this conference is at the point guard position. Not just good, but in many cases coaches in this league are getting great play at the point. It is no accident that the high-level of play this season directly correlates with some serious playmakers in this coveted leadership role.

With all due respect to Big 12 stars such as Cole Aldrich, Damion James, Marcus Morris, Craig Brackins or Ekpe Udoh, it is in the backcourt where games are ultimately won. Particularly the portion of the guard group occupied by the point position. I bet you if you asked the likely future MVP of the NBA, Kevin Durant, who the most important player was on his Texas team three seasons ago, he would say DJ Augustin.

A great point guard plays street-tough. He distributes to teammates for easier looks at the basket that compliment their offensive strengths. He can score when needed based on his own offensive abilities. He hits big shots. He wants the ball in his hands particularly when the game is on the line. He is constantly a nuisance to the opposition by getting to the heart of the defense off the dribble and disrupting the opponents' offense by relentless pressure on the ball. He doesn't necessarily have to be the best player, but has to be the most reliable. He needs to understand how to read the tempo and momentum of the game - basing his floor decisions on these factors. He must take criticism from his Head Coach with maturity. He doesn't get rattled on the road. He is a winner and his most important attributes are mental toughness and consistency.

Take a look at these Big 12 floor leaders and see if these qualities apply to them. Then tell me, as a coach, that you wouldn't feel good about one of these guys running your team. Each brings different strengths and a different style, but they all get it done.

Sherron Collins, Kansas
"Gamer." Best overall point guard in the conference. The experienced veteran is a ball-hawk defensively, can score (15.1 ppg) or dish (4.2 apg), and is tremendous late in games with the ball in his hands. His mental toughness and leadership carries the Jayhawks. Kansas is loaded with talented depth, but this is Sherron Collins' team and he is the biggest reason day-in and day-out that they are No. 1 in America.

Denis Clemente, Kansas State
"Explosive." As quick as anyone in college basketball with the ball not named John Wall. He is like a defensive back in football who never remembers the last play and can't wait for the next opportunity. No one makes great plays in bunches like Clemente.

Zaire Taylor, Missouri
"Solid." Taylor is a great decision maker (3-to-1 assist/turnover ratio). He has hit some huge shots in his two-year career in Columbia. He's a quiet leader who, along with J.T. Tiller, brings consistency and toughness to the "fastest 40 minutes in basketball."

Tweety Carter, Baylor
"Highly Underrated." A shooter (39 percent on 3-pointers) transformed into a floor leader (6.4 apg - first in the Big 12). Carter is having one of the better seasons of point guards in the country. He scores, distributes, and absolutely relishes having the ball in his hands, especially late in games. LaceDarius Dunn and Ekpe Udoh are studs, but Carter makes Baylor go.

John Roberson, Texas Tech
"Multi-Faceted." Can hurt you in whatever way he decides. If he needs to score (16.9 ppg), he does that whether it's by hitting 3's or getting to the foul-line. If distributing (5.4 apg) to teammates is appropriate, he can do that. When he's doing both within the same game, you're in trouble.

Donald Sloan, Texas A&M
"Toughness." Okay, not technically a point guard but he has the ball in his hands a ton within a game, especially late. He is a great perimeter defender and that tenacity trickles to his teammates. The fact that this is not his natural position has made it more impressive that he has carried the Aggies on his back to an impressive conference record.

Tommy Mason-Griffin, Oklahoma
"Unguardable when on." Oklahoma has struggled, but Mason-Griffin is the reason they haven't gone into a complete free-fall. The inconsistencies and issues that Coach Capel and the Sooners have had to endure are a lot for any point guard, especially a freshman, to manage. However, this experience will make Mason-Griffin even better in the long-run.

 


Colorado Rising

February 16, 2010 - Paul Splittorff, Big 12 Network

This is the time of year that there is a lot of talk about which conference is the strongest nationally. Those of us who cover, or follow the Big 12, are proud of this league and can make a strong case because of its number one RPI ranking. Of course, everyone has an opinion and we hear Dick Vitale say that he thinks the Big East is the strongest from top to bottom. I think we all respect Dick for his passion of the college game - and who sees more college basketball than he does? So let's take a look at one of the bottom teams of the Big 12 and see what's going on.

I was slated to call the Colorado game at Oklahoma in early February 2009. Oklahoma came in with 22 wins and one loss, was 8-0 in league play and the No. 2 nationally-ranked team (remember, they had the Griffin brothers). Colorado had lost six of its first seven conference games, had two freshmen and one sophomore in the starting lineup and just one senior on the entire roster. When they tossed it up for the opening tip, I was thinking 'blow-out', but was hoping it wouldn't happen right away. What we got was a great game. The Buffaloes actually controlled the contest all day. The offense was patient, had great spacing, took care of the ball, ran their sets and controlled tempo. Defensively, they changed things up, slowed the Sooners down and competed on the boards with Blake and Taylor Griffin. Oklahoma was better at every position and in the end Colorado lost, but it was by just five points. I came away very impressed with how well-coached the Buffaloes were and the poise with which they played.

The first time I saw Colorado this year, they were giving Texas (the second-ranked team in the nation at the time) everything they could handle before losing in Austin. The next time I saw Jeff Bzdelik's team was at Texas A&M. The Buffs played well, the announcers predicted the long, road losing streak would end this year, but Colorado ended up losing another tough road game. The next week they lost by one point at Iowa State, when Alec Burks played only two minutes after spraining his knee. The Kansas game was the middle of the next week and the Buffaloes took the number one team in the nation to overtime before losing by six points in a packed Coors Event Center. Last Saturday at K-State, Coach Bzdelik started a junior, three sophomores and a freshman against the ninth-ranked team in the country and trailed by just two points at the half. Turnovers plagued Colorado in second half and the Wildcats won handily.

The results appear to be the same but I believe they are getting closer to where they want to be all the time. Bzdelik is a widely-respected coach who knows the X's and O's and can develop players. We have seen him time and again put together a game plan to control more talented teams. His prize recruit, Burks, is as talented a freshman as there is in the conference and carries more responsibility on his shoulders than other first year player. While they are improving the talent level on their team, they are also upgrading their facilities. They have developed a Basketball Operations Center, built new locker rooms and added new weight rooms, all inside the Coors Event Center, that allow the team activities to be more self-contained rather than spread over campus. Under the leadership of Director of Athletics Mike Bohn, they will break ground on a new 42,000-square foot practice facility late next month. Things are looking up in Boulder.

Certainly there are hurdles that remain for this team. Young frontliners Austin Dufault and Shane Harris-Tunks need to get stronger. Coach Bzdelik is working hard to land a couple more big men to add to the mix. They need help at point guard, but they have a redshirt practicing with them that should stabilize the position. This young team has a tough week coming up with games at Kansas and at Missouri. After those two games, their strength of schedule will be among the top 20 in the nation. It is really difficult to move up when the conference is as strong as it is this year. I don't know if the road losing streak will end this season, but I do think they are headed in the right direction and have the right guy in charge.

I also think Dick Vitale knows the bottom of the Big 12 is getting stronger all the time.


Home Court Edge: Fact Or Fiction?

February 12, 2010 - Brad Sham, Big 12 Network

We all say it. We know to say it in our sleep. Announcers, writers, fans, especially coaches. We all say it.

It's tough to win on the road.

We're told that from the time we're old enough to understand what our dads are cussing at in front of the TV. I've just always wondered why.

Basketball is different than other team sports. In baseball, the basepaths and pitcher's mound-to-home plate dimensions are standard. But everything else differs from park to park, and you can tailor your team to your park's strengths. Short right field? Load up on left-handed hitters. Third baseman doesn't move well? Grow the grass taller in front of him.

Soccer field dimensions are different. Longer, wider fields may mandate speedier players who can run all day. Football's dimensions are the same, but a visiting team has a distinct disadvantage in a loud environment when its offense can't hear its own signals.

Nothing changes on a court from one building to another. Ten-foot baskets, 15-foot foul lines. The only thing that can change is the way the rims respond and the shooting background.

This week's Big 12 Conference standings underscore the truism that home teams win more, which tells me it's a mental thing, sometimes. There is certainly a comfort factor. Players at home know where everything is. It's the same as doing anything in an unfamiliar place. There's more uncertainty driving in a new city or walking around a new campus, until you're used to it.

There can be a fatigue factor. Doesn't matter if it's a three-hour flight or a two-hour bus ride, travel can take it out of you. And there's the emotion of the crowd, IF the crowd is intimidating. You make a mistake on the road, triggering a roar of emotion from a crowd cheering lustily for your failure, it can rattle you.

That's why coaches, all of whom have been players somewhere and sometime, take precautions. They try to be careful with players' schedules, trying to guarantee proper rest and nutrition (while balancing the academic load, which makes college basketball so much more intriguing to some of us).

And they also look for players who thrive on the pressure. Missouri's Mike Anderson told this week's coaches' conference call, "When adversity takes place, you're looking for someone with composure, someone who can be like a coach on the floor. Someone who can settle your team down." Does that need to be the point guard? "Doesn't have to be. It can be your captain, someone who's been through the wars. But if it is your point guard, that's good."

Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team will host Missouri this Saturday, hopes for a large, loud house, because he agrees with Anderson. "It's hard to win on the road in the Big 12 because our environments are loud and intense. At home, the crowd is behind you and you have a little more urgency, you can play better. On the road, you have to have a team that doesn't get rattled, that can weather storms, withstand those 8, 10 point runs you know are coming. You need to hit your free throws and make some stops."

The standings do, however, show something that doesn't appear to have anything to do with geography.

If you have a really good team, it appears you can win anywhere. If you don't you may have trouble everywhere.

I know. "No duh." Just saying. Kansas, I think we all agree, is pretty good. Allen Fieldhouse, as anyone who has been there knows, has a great atmosphere and is a tough place to play.

I submit it's even tougher because Kansas has a really good team.

Anyone who has followed college basketball and especially anyone who's been to Iowa State knows about Hilton Magic. THAT's a tough place to play.

And the Cyclones are 1-3 at home in league competition.

That may even out before the season ends. But I'll be Kansas' record stays pretty good home, road or in a silo.

It's the middle-of-the-pack games where location might be important, where the teams are more evenly matched. Except, uh, in four Big 12 games this week since Monday, the road team has won 3 (Kansas at Texas, Tech at Oklahoma, Baylor at Nebraska).

What do we learn from all this? We learn that if you're a fan, and your team is playing at home, you better go to the game, bring your friends and make a racket.

But it may not help much if the other team is way better.


Ascending To The Top In The Big 12

February 9, 2010 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network

I was in Texas last month. The Longhorns have been going through a tough stretch. After rising to unprecedented heights, including a number one ranking for the first time in the program's history, Texas has lost five of its last seven games (including a tough home loss to Kansas last night - a game many had circled on their calendars back in November). And yet, on this Saturday morning 10 days ago, Coach Barnes took time to talk about other teams, other programs, and other coaches. While saying the pressures on programs such as Texas or Kansas can at times be overwhelming, he took time to praise others. That's not just magnanimous, it's remarkable.

Before I tell you more of our conversation, I want to take time to reflect a little on the context of our discussion. We talked just hours before Coach Barnes and his Longhorns would lose in overtime at home to the surging Baylor Bears. His team had already a rugged week. After rising to the top of the poll, Texas lost to Kansas State in the Octagon of Doom. They were beaten badly at UConn after having a second half lead. And yet, with this as a backdrop, Coach Barnes reached out to Nebraska, Colorado, and Iowa State. Some might say that this was merely diversionary, but I can assure you, it was sincere.

Being at the top like Texas was, and now Kansas is, can be tough. When you have number one next to your name, it's only natural that you become a target. Everyone wants to knock you off that perch. The Longhorns felt the impact of this for the first time ever, and fell to the pressure. Kansas has been number one longer than any other team this year. A preseason top ranking that the Jayhawks didn't relinquish until a loss at Tennessee. Now KU has ascended to the top spot again, and even they are not immune to the ramped up emotions of their opponents. Last week, Kansas had to go into overtime to win at Colorado. Then the Jayhawks felt the heat from Nebraska at home before fending off the Cornhuskers. No one in this league and few in the nation have the history, tradition and success of the Jayhawks. With five National Championships, including one just two years ago, Kansas has stood alone on that mountaintop. It's a tough trek, a lonely journey. Only those in your corner are rooting for you, the rest are with the underdog. So there is immense pressure to not only be at the top, but in staying there. In fact, a strong argument could be made that it's tougher to stay on top than to get there. That's why I've always admired those who have ascended to great heights and had the fortitude and ability to stay there. But I've also admired and respected the job that is being done by so many who are fighting to get there. There's passion, drive and desire in their quest. And that brings us back to my discussion with Coach Barnes.

He spoke of his admiration for the job being done by Doc Sadler, Greg McDermott and Jeff Bzdelik. He said, "That's where some real coaching is taking place." He talked about how those programs have to fight for everything. Players, facilities, wins. We talked about how hard it is to try to climb the mountain that is the Big 12. Especially this year. We talked about how you could make the argument that almost every single team in this league could be better this year, and how tough that makes it on those trying to ascend to the top.

The gap is closing, that is becoming more and more clear. The scores reflect it. The home courts are rocking. Every arena in the Big 12 has been alive. The energy is palpable. The greatest beneficiaries in all of this are the fans. But I would also argue that each team would also benefit. As we head toward March Madness, those who survive the rigors of the conference will be battle tested. That should pay big dividends next month. Let's continue to enjoy the ride and buckle up --- the best is yet to come!

 


Midseason Checkup

February 5, 2010 - Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network

Conference play in the Big 12 is almost to its midway point and is living up to all of its preseason hype. It is delivering for the fans top ranked teams, competitive games, heated rivalry matchups, last second buzzer beaters, and a domination by home court teams that has the nation buzzing. The race for Big 12 Champion is starting to form, and the grueling fight to stay in the hunt has manifested.

As a former collegiate and professional basketball player, I can remember the middle of the 30-game collegiate season as well as the 82-game NBA season with fondness. OK, I'm lying. The "middle" is the hardest part of the season for players as well as coaches. Players have been practicing and playing games for months and have bumps and bruises everywhere imaginable. Then add the mental fatigue of battling a big man who will be a lottery pick on one night and then the next morning grappling with a finance test of which 40 percent of your grade will rely on….and we thought a last second shot to win the game was all the pressure these college students have. Coaches too have their work cut out for them trying to motivate tired players and teams that might have lost their confidence while tempering the egos of others who feel they can topple the world with a single jump shot.

Here we will look at a few categories in which teams, players, and coaches have distinguished themselves during the first part of Big 12 conference play:

Best Team:
Kansas - Though at times they have shown weaknesses in their game, the Jayhawks have always fought through them and come out on top. The veteran leadership of Sherron Collins is such a stabilizing influence, and it just goes to show that good and experienced guards are the most valuable commodity in college basketball. Add to that the improving play of Cole Aldrich (who early on had battled health and personal issues), and the energetic play of Marcus Morris, their front line is back to dominating like everyone thought they should. Coach Self has done a masterful job of blending egos and expectations to have Kansas positioned exactly where they want to be…on top.

Best Player:
Sherron Collins - Again, I cannot underscore how important it is to have your best player be your point guard. The ability to have a coach on the floor is a luxury that not many coaches have. If you look at the majority of the top 25 teams, they have an experienced floor general running the show. The fact that Collins isn't the leading scorer in the Big 12 does not diminish the fact that he is the best player. If you look at when he scores, it's always at the critical juncture of the game… it is then that you understand his importance. That is where he shows his greatness. If you were fortunate enough to watch the final seconds of the Kansas vs. Kansas State battle, you would have seen Sherron Collins take and make a shot in which everyone in the arena, on the court and at home watching TV knew he was going to take. That's leadership....the fact that he made it….that's greatness.

Surprise Team:
Baylor - This is a tough one because you have so many teams that could fit this description (Kansas State, Missouri, Texas Tech) but none better than the Bears. Picked to finish near the bottom of the league in the preseason polls (10th), they have been winning with a word that hasn't been used much in Waco the last three years, DEFENSE. Just ask the Texas Longhorns, who gave up a rare road win to Baylor. Yes, the Bears are playing defense and doing it well, using the stifling zone that Coach Drew implemented during the Big 12 Championship and rode all the way to an appearance in the NIT finals. Riding that momentum and with the addition of one of the top shot blockers and rebounders in the nation, Ekpe Udoh, Baylor now has the inside-outside balance that is feared in the Big 12 and will be dangerous in the Big Dance.

Best Defensive Team:
Texas - I know Texas is struggling with its identity right now, and offensively has looked sporadic at best, but this is still one of the most disruptive defenses in the land. One thing you can't coach is instinctive defensive play, and there is not a team with a core of defenders better than Dogus Balbay, Justin Mason and Damion James. Dogus Balbay is arguably one of the top defenders in college ball the way he harasses opponents from end to end. His highlight block of Theron Jenkins of Texas Tech in the first half of their game last week exemplifies the height (literally) that he will go to defend.

Most Underrated Player:
James Anderson - How James Anderson can repeatedly perform at a high level offensively in the Big 12 and get overlooked by the national media is beyond me. Midway through conference play, he is leading the Big 12 in scoring as he has led his team in scoring for the last three years as a freshman, sophomore and junior. Big Game James always comes to play for Oklahoma State and should be in consideration for some national honors.

Best Conference:
Big 12 - What makes this conference so great is not the fact that they have four teams ranked in the top 25 with a total of six teams getting votes, nor is it because they should and will get eight teams into the NCAA Tournament this year. The Big 12 is the best conference because of the strength of the bottom half of the league. It is true that you are only as strong as your weakest link and the fact that teams such as Colorado, Texas Tech and the always-tough Nebraska are feared opponents, exemplifies how the Big 12 has grown into arguably one of the best basketball conferences in the country.

 


Grinders Wanted

February 2, 2010 - Paul Splittorff, Big 12 Network

We've completed the first four Saturdays of the Big 12 season and it's been a great start to the year. The stars have shown brightly and the upper classmen have led their teams, while some of the freshmen appear to be as talented as anyone else on their team. We've also found out the Big 12 is the strongest conference in the country and I believe it's as physical as I can remember.

We have also found out the Big 12 is a terrific defensive league, which we expected. Every single coach in the league really stresses defense and as a result the offenses have had to adjust. It is no surprise the point totals are down almost across the board with some teams scoring 8-10 points less per game in conference play than overall.

Mark Turgeon at Texas A&M teaches his team they must be prepared to go over picks as many as five times to get a good shot. Travis Ford at Oklahoma State stresses going over picks shoulder-to-shoulder to cut off the defense. Frank Martin at Kansas State made an adjustment on the curl cuts their guards run on a tip from Bob Knight after their Big Monday win against Texas. Even Kansas, which is scoring almost as much in conference play as they are overall, is finding that many times it's their fourth of fifth option that finally gets them a good shot.

I believe that translates into the offense being capable and willing to grind it out. Thus, they need players that we could call GRINDERS. In my opinion, the best GRINDERS have a number of traits in common. They are usually upperclassmen where experience and the time in the program have them more prepared physically and mentally to handle what defenses are dishing out. They have strength and more importantly, they are aggressive and love to compete. This is even more important when teams are challenged on the road.

Two of my favorite GRINDERS are Mike Singletary at Texas Tech and Obi Muonelo at Oklahoma State. I know Singletary got shut down at Kansas, but he's an undersized power forward who had a tough day against the super-sized front line of the Jayhawks. Still, he possesses everything you would want in a GRINDER; strong, aggressive, plays with energy, and is more than willing to 'mix it up'. Even though still a junior, he is a leader and the backbone of the team. Muonelo has the same qualities as Singletary and as a senior is one player the Cowboys can't do without. He is also an undersized No. 4, but last week, because of an injury to point guard Ray Penn, he has been out front more taking over point guard duties. A true 'GRINDER' will do anything you ask him to do.

This week, we will reach the halfway point of the conference season. The stars are easy to pick out and everybody knows who they are. As you watch games over the next few weeks, see if you can identify other important players with the traits I have mentioned that you can add to my GRINDER list.

 


Upperclassmen Make A Difference

January 29, 2010 - Rich Zvosec, Big 12 Network

Remember the days when you got to know a college basketball player over the course of four years? You watched him grow and got to know him as he developed right before your eyes. Unfortunately, with early-entry into the NBA and players coming-and-going - college basketball, in many respects, has become a war of attrition. The four-year letterman has become a rare commodity. This is especially true in high level conferences such as the Big 12.

Players tend to leave for two reasons. First, they leave to get paid to play in the NBA (some are ready, but some are not). Secondly, because they don't have the patience to stay in one place and earn playing time. Let's face it; we live in a "fast food", instant gratification society. Gotta have it and gotta have it now! College basketball is just a microcosm of today's societal leanings.

That is what makes this year so special in the Big 12. Sure incoming players are pumped up by the media, but it is no coincidence that the conference had the No. 1 RPI ranking at one point in January and there are a plethora of upperclassmen leading the way.

Kansas and Texas are prime examples of programs bolstered by players spurning the NBA to come back for another season. Both teams have talented freshmen who are contributing, but it is Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich that are leading the Jayhawks. While down in Austin, its Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Gary Johnson carrying the bulk of the load for the Longhorns.

Colorado's improvement this year has a lot to do with junior Cory Higgins knowledge of the Buffs system and the conference. He has been able to help the younger players make the adjustment and give them someone to lean on.

Kansas State, Baylor, and Missouri are three programs who have grown as teams because of their upperclassmen's development. Wildcat Jamar Samuels is a poster child for growth and maturity. His hard work over the past couple of summers has made him one of the top sixth men in the conference.

The backcourts at Baylor (Dunn and Carter) and Missouri (Tiller and Taylor) have the experience and credibility to impart words of wisdom to their younger teammates. Trust me when I tell you, good and experienced guards are the most valuable commodity in college basketball. They control the game by managing the clock, handling the ball and directing teammates where to go.

In Cowboy and Cyclone country, you have a combination of players returning and players staying put. James Anderson (OSU) and Craig Brackins' (ISU) decision to withdraw from the NBA draft had a major impact on both teams current success. Throw in guys like senior Obi Muonelo (OSU), junior Marshall Moses (OSU), and junior Diante Garrett (ISU) and you have two teams in the running for postseason play.

Further south in Texas, the A&M Aggies are being led by seniors Bryan Davis and Donald Sloan. This inside-out combination has helped steady the ship after the season-ending injury to fellow senior Derrick Roland. Over in Lubbock, it is a trio of juniors (John Roberson, Mike Singletary and D'walyn Roberts) that have led the Red Raiders to their best start in over 50 years.

Coach Jeff Capel has been able to lean on Tony Crocker (a senior) and Cade Davis (a junior) to help a talented freshmen class overcome a shaky non-conference start. And in Lincoln, Doc Sadler has relied on seniors Ryan Anderson and Sek Henry to teach three promising young post players the Cornhusker system.

There are two things in college basketball you can't buy. One is tradition and the other is experience. And if you still don't believe me that experienced upperclassmen are not important to a team's success, just look at the Big 12's last national championship team. The Kansas Jayhawks were loaded with upperclassmen when they hung the last championship banner in the Conference. If history is a past teacher, then look out Big 12 fans as this could be another banner year!

 


Big 12 Arms Race

January 26, 2010 - Doug Bell, Big 12 Network

Last week I went to College Station to call the Oklahoma-Texas A&M game for the Big 12 Network. After watching both teams work out the morning of game day, I decided to follow the Aggies as they walked off the court into their basketball training facility.

As I took the five-cent tour, I quickly started hearing the same voice that talked to Kevin Costner in the movie, "Field of Dreams". "If you build it, they will come", kept ringing in my head. If you hadn't noticed, there is an arms race in the Big 12. If you want to keep up with the major players in this major basketball league, you have to have the facilities, dedicated solely to hoops.

In College Station, I was absolutely blown away by this 68,000 square foot basketball palace which houses the men and women's teams. The bubbles were coming from everywhere, as I walked past a player rehabbing in the hydrotherapy room. He was actually running on a treadmill which was underwater. The Cox-McFerrin center is three stories, with the first floor opening up to floor level of Reed Arena, which also includes a locker room that is spacious and spectacular, and a sound system that had me thinking I was ready for an episode of "Dancing with the Stars". The second floor has the two practice floors, which are duplicates of the Reed Arena surface including the same exact lighting. The third floor has the coaches' offices that overlook the practice courts, and a family gathering area.

Aggies coach Mark Turgeon told me, "When they started digging the hole, things started changing around here." Texas A&M Director of Athletics Bill Byrne added, "We wanted recruits jaws to drop." I must admit, I found myself picking my own jaw off the plush carpet, with the huge Aggie logo emblazoned in the middle.

Of course, this is not the only basketball exclusive facility that is drawing rave reviews. Baylor coach Scott Drew showed me around the Bears facility in Waco, and explained (as he swiped the security lock on the wall) that every Baylor player has access 24/7 - which means they can work on their games anytime they feel the urge. The VIP lounge overlooking the practice court is also a nice touch.

The Kansas Jayhawks recently put the finishing touches on their brand new practice building attached to Allen Fieldhouse and Bill Self has another powerful piece of his outstanding program in place and ready show off to recruits. Mounted on the wall of the KU facility is the middle of the 2008 Final Four floor from San Antonio, which is pretty inspiring.

I've always loved things at the University of Texas. Big is probably the word that can best describe the Denton Cooley Pavilion. Two levels, 44,000 square feet total, including 9,000 square feet of practice courts, is heaven for a basketball junkie. I love the player's lounge, equipped with a bunch of flat screens, leather couches and pool tables. The instructional film theatre sits on the second floor, where players watch tape of future opponents, as well as the latest Hollywood motion picture. I couldn't find any 3-D glasses, but believe me, I'm sure they were there. Like all the other programs with high-tech training centers, the Longhorns welcome back former players who need a place to practice in the offseason and the pick-up games between current players and past stars are legendary, and private.

Missouri and Texas Tech also have beautiful and very functional practice areas, which are tucked away inside their spectacular buildings. The Mizzou Arena and United Spirit Center are gorgeous facilities, with all the modern amenities. Mike Anderson and Pat Knight have no complaints.

Iowa State recently cut the ribbon on the "Sukup Family Basketball Complex" a facility just off campus. It is 37,000 square feet of all basketball, shiny and brand new, complete with gorgeous pictures and NCAA Tournament banners adorning the walls. I must say, it's something the Cyclones have needed for quite a while. I can imagine on a cold and snowy day in Ames, (there are a few of those) biding your time away by playing some hoops, watching movies, playing video games on the big screen televisions, and being able to study in the academic resource center, equipped with wireless internet access. I'm not sure I would ever leave, and maybe that's the method to the madness.

Oklahoma was the first in the conference to build a practice facility nine years ago and it continues to be one of the best. Like all the facilities in Stillwater, Oklahoma State has tied in their practice building to the Gallagher Iba Arena, with the same kind of brick and masonry. The Cowboys are now in the process of completing new locker rooms, which will be state of the art and enormous.

Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas State are all in the final stages of fund raising, and have plans to break ground very soon on new basketball training centers. Kansas State's Frank Martin said recently, "We've been able to re-introduce the country to K-State basketball, and in order to maintain that level, you have to upgrade what you have." The Wildcats still share their main floor with the other teams, and when a concert or event comes to campus, they sometimes find themselves traveling to Topeka just for practice. That will soon be a distant memory. CU coach Jeff Bzdelik told me that when he accepted the job three seasons ago, he told school officials that upgrades had to be made and with the ground breaking happening in March of this year, it appears that the folks in Boulder got the message. The Buffaloes facility will be just down the driveway of the Coors Events Center, and will allow that building to host more concerts and events. Sounds like a good financial plan if you ask me.

An arms race is definitely on in the Big 12, as men and women's teams rival the best programs in the country for the top players, and wowing these young people and their families during a recruiting visit is all part of it. You can easily hear a coach telling a recruit and his family - this will be your home for the next four or five years. Everything you need to be the best player and student is all in this building. You will practice and study, play and relax, right here in your new home. This is your house.

Yes, I'm still hearing the line from the movie, and it's true in the case of the Big 12. They are building the facilities, and the people and players are indeed coming.

 


Hard Jobs Prepare Coaches For Big Stage

January 21, 2010 - Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network

It is apparent that the Big 12 has its best overall lineup of teams and coaches in its 14 years of existence. I think I know the reason and it may not be obvious to all. Big 12 coaches, for the most part, readied themselves for their current jobs by learning "on the job" at other schools. Big 12 coaches learned how to succeed at those schools without having the biggest budgets or best players and had to figure out a way to win games without having the best talent on the floor.

I see a growing concern in both professional and collegiate sports that coaches are thrust into head coaching roles on the "big stage" before they are adequately prepared. I like to evaluate college basketball coaches with my "five finger" rule. There are five areas where college head coaches can be judged:

 

  1. Recruiting - the lifeblood of any program, this area is obvious.
  2. Bench Coaching - how does a coach react under the pressures of game day?
  3. Practice Coaching - how does a coach maximize their 20 hours of practice time during the week? How much improvement do players show from year-to-year while they are in their respective programs?
  4. Administration - how does a coach handle the fiscal responsibility of handling budgets that total millions of dollars and how do they manage their growing list of employees under their direct command.
  5. Public Relations - how does a coach handle the ever growing demands of external and internal public relations. Many coaches have failed in this area while being good in the previous four areas.
A main example of this concept is Bill Self at Kansas. I talked to Coach Self in December on this topic and he wholeheartedly agreed. Bill was approached by a "BCS-Big Six" school when he was an assistant at Oklahoma State in the early 1990's. He was only 29 years old and thought he wasn't ready to take that big a jump that soon in his career. Instead, he later took the head-coaching job at Oral Roberts University for four years. It wasn't easy for Self there. His first team finished 6-21 and suffered an 18-game losing streak. However, he said that it made him a better coach and prepared him for his success at Kansas. "There is no question that my experiences at Oral Roberts and Tulsa were important to me," Self said. He added, "I'm not sure I could have had the success at Illinois and Kansas that I've had without the experiences of being a head coach at ORU and Tulsa… it wasn't easy, but it prepared me."

The league has other examples of this concept. Fans forget that Rick Barnes of Texas started his head-coaching career at George Mason and battled six years as the head coach of Providence College. Mark Turgeon has told me repeatedly about the struggles and challenges he faced at Jacksonville State and Wichita State. He also told me that he is a better coach at Texas A&M because of those experiences. Mike Anderson was at UAB four years before taking over at Mizzou. Jeff Capel is always associated with his time at Duke, but fans also forget that he was at VCU for four years.

Baylor head coach Scott Drew apprenticed for his current job by serving as Valparaiso's head coach. Travis Ford prepared for his current job at Oklahoma State by toiling in the Ohio Valley Conference at Eastern Kentucky. Frank Martin, the Kansas State head coach has received attention for the work he has done at K- State, but he also doesn't discount the value of being a head coach at high-profile Miami high schools in Florida for EIGHT years.

The Big 12 coaches have recruited very well, and for the most part are fitting all five "fingers" of my collegiate coaching criteria. What is forgotten many times is the laboratory of preparing for those five areas and the perspective that is gained by being at "tougher" jobs before they enter the "big stage" of the Big 12 Conference.

 


Big 12 "Glue Guys"

January 19, 2010 - Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network

There are some big-time players in this league such as Damion James of Texas, Sherron Collins of Kansas and James Anderson of Oklahoma State - among others. It is fun watching these stars of the Big 12 dominating and making plays in crunch time. We marvel at the ability of these future NBA bound players each night as we watch their SportsCenter highlights.

However, it is many times the "unsung" teammates of these stars that do the little things that are necessary to get victories. These are the players that actually hold a team together. The ones that play harder than everybody else, no matter what the game situation. The ones that take pride in defense, dive on the floor for loose balls and take charges. The ones that make very few mistakes, run the offense as the coach wants, or makes the extra pass. The ones that don't have eye-popping stats, but have the respect and admiration of their coaches and their teammates. They are the "glue" that holds a team together. Look at any good team and they have these types of players. Let me illustrate what I mean by giving you three of my favorite unsung players in the Big 12 who are the "glue" to their respective teams.

J.T. Tiller, 6'3" Senior - Missouri
Ask Mike Anderson and he will tell you - the "heart & soul" of last year's Elite Eight team was J.T. Tiller. The stat sheet would lead you to answer DeMarre Carroll or Leo Lyons. However, no one plays tougher at both ends than Tiller. He is one of the league's best perimeter defenders, understands the Mizzou system better than any other player and does everything Coach Anderson asks of him. For much of this season, Tiller has played with a bone bruise on his left foot, but has continued to fight through it without complaints or excuses. Ever notice how much chemistry this team has had the past two years? See where it originates? Throw in that he is an outstanding student and very active in the Columbia community and once again his leadership has the Tigers in the direction of another NCAA Tournament bid.

Justin Mason, 6'2" Senior - Texas
Literally referred to by coaches and teammates as the "glue guy" of the Longhorns, Mason is playing only 16 minutes a game compared to averaging 30 minutes for his career coming into this season (a little indication of how good Texas is!). He has not moaned and groaned about his playing time, but has continued to the defensive stopper. His value does not conclude there. He takes good shots and takes care of the ball with a 2-to-1 career assist-to-turnover ratio. In addition, he is setting a tremendous example for young Longhorn talent such as Avery Bradley and J'Covan Brown about what type of intensity it takes at the Big 12 level. Look for Mason's minutes to increase in league play, particularly on the road, when Rick Barnes needs defensive stops and maturity on the court.

Brady Morningstar, 6'3" Junior - Kansas
After missing the first nine games of the season due to a violations of team rules, Morningstar's 09'-10 debut was in Lawrence against Michigan on December 19. How much P-T would Morningstar, who started 34 of 35 games last year, get with the already stacked depth of the Jayhawks? How about 21 minutes a game with the likelihood of increased time in conference play. Why? Because he is Kansas' most solid defender, takes care of the ball, hits open shots, and as of now the only Jayhawk with consistent post-entry passes into Cole Aldrich. Ask any KU player who the most reliable teammate on the court is and the answer will most likely be Morningstar.

 


Signed, Sealed and Delivered

January 15, 2010 - Doug Bell, Big 12 Network

It's a delight to watch a coach like Scott Drew work a high school gymnasium. I saw it first hand recently when I was calling a game on ESPNU in Dallas, Texas between Duncanville and Lincoln high schools. Both teams were full of prospects with Duncanville's Perry Jones, a 6-11 dynamo and Baylor recruit leading the charge. There was the vivacious Drew circling the gymnasium like a politician, waving at the crowd and letting everyone know he had arrived. Oklahoma State's Travis Ford was also there along with Texas assistant coach Chris Ogden. All three schools recruit Texas with a fury. As I discovered, recruiting is all about kissing babies, shaking hands, and making people feel comfortable.

Weeks later, more of the same in Ft. Myers, Florida at the City of Palms Classic, one of the elite holiday high school tournaments in the country. Ogden was again on hand, wearing his burnt orange golf shirt, making sure Myck Kabongo, a junior sharp shooter from St. Benedict's in New Jersey and verbal commitment for the Longhorns, could see that he made the trip. Ogden, by the way, is credited with lassoing this year's star recruit and number one prospect in the ESPN top 100 Avery Bradley. Ogden, who played for Rick Barnes, discovered that the young man from Spokane, Washington was a transplanted Texan, who had a T.J. Ford poster on his wall all through high school. While all the Pac-10 schools went after him with a full court press, his heart was with the Longhorns.

It takes hard working, intelligent, and savvy coaches to discover things like that. Nobody does it better than Rick Barnes of Texas and Bill Self from Kansas. Paul Biancardi, the national director of recruiting for ESPN, says that Barnes and Self, are two of the most well-known and experienced recruiters as far as head coaches in the country. For that formula to work, the staff back home has to be top notch. In other words, while the head man is out on the road, the assistant coaches are running the ship. Biancardi also feels that Oklahoma's Jeff Capel is moving into the elite category of top recruiters. The Sooners' class this past year, which included Tiny Gallon and Tommy Mason-Griffin, was arguably the best in the land. All of these programs recruit from the inside-out. In other words, they try and protect the home turf, signing the best in the state, and then it's time to branch out.

Others like Frank Martin from K-State, Mark Turgeon of Texas A&M, and Texas Tech's Pat Knight, have to carve out a different strategy, and they have all been effective.

Turgeon, a Larry Brown disciple, is a grinder. He really digs to find the high school players that haven't been seen by so many eyeballs at AAU events and all-star games. He uses contacts from years beating the bushes at Jacksonville State and Wichita State, and comes up with players like David Loubeau and Dash Harris. There are growing pains early, but in the end, Turgeon's players usually stick around all four years and like their coach are rock solid by the time they are seniors.

Pat Knight has developed major contacts in the junior college ranks, and continues to sign outstanding JUCO prospects like Brad Davis, maybe the best shooter in the country on the two-year circuit.

Frank Martin simply knows how to get players. He and Wildcats assistant Delonte Hill have discovered a fertile ground in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area, which produced Michael Beasley two years ago, and this year will unleash Wally Judge, a 6-8 power forward with skills. Martin also recruits his home of Miami, Florida, where he was a successful high school coach. At the City of Palms event, they were still telling the stories of Martin's North Miami team which beat all the national teams back in the day.

I've known Mike Anderson for many years, and while he is starting to make in-roads in Missouri with recruits like Marcus Denmon and Mike Dixon, he has always branched out to the Southeast, where he can find his way without a road map.

As for smiling Scott Drew, the reason he's grinning from ear-to-ear is because he is holding his own sparring against the heavyweights in the game. After Perry Jones went away this summer and starred in AAU ball, the sharks started circling around Dallas and Scott somehow managed to convince Jones that Baylor was the place to be. Remember the name of Stargell Love, a point guard from North Carolina, who will also be Waco-bound next season. Like Jones, Drew found him early and hasn't let go. When the new rankings come out, Love could be a top 100 player.

It comes down to experience, persistence, evaluation, and the toughest part is landing the right guy. There are many who talk a good game, but it's difficult to actually land the big fish. The current crop of Big 12 coaches have been filling up their boats in a big way with the proof being the results on the floor.

 


Five Up From the Bottom

January 13, 2010 - Reid Gettys, Big 12 Network

It is that time of the year when every coach across the country starts talking about how hard it is to win a conference game on the road. When you hear a Big 12 coach echo these same sentiments, rest assured that this is much more than your average "Coachspeak."

Consider this statistic, as of last night's games - Colorado's win at home over Baylor and Kansas State's home win over A&M - Big 12 teams are a staggering 114-1 at home! Let those numbers resonate for a second, 114-1, unbelievable! Traditional thought is that if you finish your conference home schedule with a winning record (6-2 or 5-3) and then you split on the road games, you finish either 10-6 or 9-7. With the Big 12's conference RPI expected to stay either first or second, that record will get you dancing in March. The obvious problem with this formula?? Were you paying attention? Home teams are currently 114-1!

In the past, if you're a fan (our coaches would not like me suggesting this approach), you would simply look at your schedule, get out a pen and circle road games at the bottom five teams of the conference and assume that these would be wins. This year … not so much! Let's take the preseason polls and review the "five up from the bottom."

By way of quick disclaimer, I did not have a vote in the preseason polls, so don't blame me for where your team was picked to finish. Since the "stars" of the bottom five were for the most part all leading their teams last season, I would suggest that it is the newcomers that are making huge contributions in Ames, Boulder, Lincoln, Lubbock and Waco. If you haven't seen all of the teams in the Big12 play yet this season, let me give you a quick preview of some of the new faces.

In Ames, the Cyclones have added the preseason newcomer of the year, Marquis Gilstrap, to their roster. Another scorer is exactly what was needed to take some pressure off of Craig Brackins. Marquis scored 16 against Duke last weekend and is averaging 19 points over the last several games. Improved shooting from the perimeter along with the versatility of Gilstrap has made Iowa State a much improved team and will return some of that magic to Hilton!

Colorado has added one of the best freshmen that nobody is talking about. Alec Burks has been simply outstanding early so far this season. He has averaged 18 points and six rebounds over the last six games and has been shooting over 50 percent from the floor. He is silky-smooth. He attacks the basket and is a great compliment to the most underrated player in the Big 12, Corey Higgins. As Baylor found out on Tuesday night, if you think wins will be easy in Boulder, think again.

Out of Doc Sadler's 11 players on his roster, five are freshmen. Last Saturday, Armstrong and I got to see the debut of Christian Standharbinger. Trust me on this one; he is going to be GREAT! I love his motor on the offensive end! He hit a three, took defenders off the dribble and scored over his right shoulder and over his left shoulder in the post … he is a complete player. Once he learns to defend, he will be a stud. Trust me, these young Cornhuskers are going to get better every time they step on the court together.

In Lubbock, the Red Raiders are better because … well … the Red Raiders are better. Here is a statement of the obvious, better players make a better team. One of those newcomers for Pat Knight that has really made an impact is David Tairu. He has been a spark plug and has been playing his best ball lately. David has averaged double-figure scoring over the last six games and is shooting over 50 percent. How improved are the Red Raiders? Well, they have gone from preseason "bottom five" team, to being ranked for several weeks in the top 25! Anyone excited about playing in Lubbock?

Finally, if you have not seen the Baylor Bears, you have missed seeing my leading candidate for newcomer of the year. Ekpe Udoh leads the Big 12 in rebounding, leads the Big 12 in double/doubles, leads the Big 12 in blocked shots and just completed the rarest of rare games, a triple-double! Baylor has also gone from the "bottom five" to the Top 25!

It may be early to start any serious debate about which conference is the best, but one thing is for sure, road wins in the Big 12 will be few and far between!

 


Could This Be The Best Ever?

January 8, 2010 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network

Here we go again….another year of Big 12 basketball. Only this year already feels different. This year feels special. This is the year when the best that college basketball has to offer will take place right here in the Midwest.

Want proof? Here are some numbers. A non-conference record of 140-29 so far. A winning percentage of .828, the best in the country. Or how about an 8-4 record against top 25 opponents? Or a 28-10 mark against the "Big Six" conferences? The numbers don't lie. The Big 12 has been the most dominant league to date and it sets up what should be the most competitive conference season we've ever seen. With the top two ranked teams in the land, three in the top 10, four ranked overall and several others on the cusp, the Big 12 is deeper than ever. There will be no easy wins for anyone on the road this year. The bottom of the league is much improved and the top of the conference speaks for itself. So let's take a brief look at each team.

Baylor
The Bears have picked up where they left off from last year's great run to the title game of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship. The scoring is still there, plus Baylor's zone defense has helped them immensely. Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn can fill it up from outside and the addition of Ekpe Udoh has given the Bears a strong inside presence.

Colorado
The Buffaloes are greatly improved. Corey Higgins is back, and he continues to be one of the most talented players in the country. Now CU has added a freshman that we'll be talking about quite a bit - Alec Burks has already led the team in scoring five times this year.

Iowa State
The Cyclones got a huge boost when Craig Brackins came back. Now they've added Marquis Gilstrap, a player that is a contender for the Newcomer of the Year award. We all know about Hilton magic, and you get the sense that Iowa State will have a few tricks up their sleeve this year.

Kansas
Unbeaten. Number one. No apparent weaknesses. Two preseason All-Americans. The Jayhawks will be gunning for their sixth straight conference title…and a whole lot more. The daunting thing for the rest of the league is this team just might be better than the one that won a National Championship two years ago.

Kansas State
Most thought the Wildcats would be very good this year, but they've played great. KSU went through a four-pack of games against Washington State, Xavier, UNLV and Alabama and not only won all four, but won by an average of 15 points! Jacob Pullen has raised his game to another level while showing great leadership. Denis Clemente is still one of the quickest and most competitive players around, and the 'Cats have added Curtis Kelly from UConn. The sky's the limit for this group.

Missouri
The scouting report was that the Tigers lost too much to be competitive. That report was dead wrong. They may not make a run to the Elite Eight, but Mizzou is still a very scary team to play. They lead the league in steals and are shooting lights out. Kim English is an emerging star in this conference.

Nebraska
The Cornhuskers still aren't the tallest tree in the forest, but Doc Sadler's team is off to one of the best starts in school history. Defense gets the credit here. It'll be tough to score more than 70 points on this group.

Oklahoma
The Sooners have been disappointing so far but still feature a wealth of talent. Willie Warren and Tony Crocker are quite a one-two punch. The additions of Tiny Gallon and Tommy Mason-Griffin make OU dangerous. If this team grows up, they have all the talent to contend.

Oklahoma State
The Cowboys feature a player that doesn't get nearly enough publicity. James Anderson should be getting much more attention, but this quiet wingman lets his game speak for itself. And what a game! OSU is a bit undersized, but the Pokes are defending, which gives them a chance to be in every game they play.

Texas
This is Rick Barnes best team. Let that sink in for a second. As great as the Longhorns have been, this year's team is positioned to take them to unprecedented heights. Like Kansas, this team has no apparent weakness. Great size inside. Better shooting from the outside. An athletic group that can really defend. Circle February 8 on your calendar, that's when Texas will host the Jayhawks. Wow!

Texas A&M
It's so sad the Aggies lost Derrick Roland. A great defender and "glue" guy for A&M. And it didn't help when Chinamalou Elanu left early for the NBA. But with Donald Sloan, Bryan Davis, Dash Harris, etc., the Aggies will fight for a spot in the middle of the league.

Texas Tech
The Red Raiders have been the biggest, and most pleasant, surprise so far. Pat Knight's team put themselves on the map with the overtime win over Washington. John Roberson, Mike Singletary and David Tairu have all had big moments already. This team is much more athletic and ready to go.

So get ready everyone for the best race we've ever witnessed. It should be fun!

 

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