The Big 12 Starting Five
March 18, 2013 – Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network - @mitchholthus
Five Big 12 teams are headed to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament and here are my thoughts on their matchups.
The Jayhawks were impressive in Kansas City to claim the Big 12 Championship, now Bill Self's regular season co-champions go right back to the Sprint Center as the NCAA Tournament's No. 2 overall seed. The Jayhawks have the toughest region in my opinion. How does the No. 2 overall seed get a bracket with No. 3 Florida, No. 4 Michigan, No. 5 VCU, No. 6 UCLA, No. 7 San Diego St. No. 8 North Carolina, No. 9 Villanova, No. 10 Oklahoma (see later), and No. 11 Minnesota? What? This is the No. 2 seed's bracket?
Jeff Withey is Kansas' biggest weapon in the tournament. There is no better defender at the goal than the fifth-year senior. Also, KU's experience in their run last year to the National Championship game will help. KU's perimeter defense is the nation's best as well with Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Ben McLemore. In addition, the bench emerged at the Big 12 Championships as Perry Ellis had the best games of his young career in KC.
Don't sleep on KU's first game. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have a great tradition. How many 16 seeds have been to 23 NCAA Tournaments? Also, WKU has appeared in seven Sweet 16's and shared the 1971 Final Four with Kansas. The Toppers are young but have consistent scorers in Jamal Crook, sophomore George Fant and 6-4 athlete T.J. Price.
Bruce Weber has done a magnificent job coaching K-State this year. This team has earned a No. 4 seed in the West Region and the opportunity to play the first weekend at Sprint Center in Kansas City. K-State is the personification of the "sum is greater than the parts" description. Rodney McGruder was outstanding in the win over Oklahoma State at the Big 12 Championship but the Wildcats have proven they have much more than McGruder.
K-State's biggest strength is their efficiency. They are one of the nation's top teams in points per possession and have a great assist-to-turnover ratio. Moreover, the 'Cats are much better defensively than a year ago. Angel Rodriguez is better equipped this year for an NCAA run in the tourney and is an emerging star. Weber's Purples need to have a healthy Jordan Henriquez and Will Spradling to extend deep into the bracket.
I like K-State's chances to advance in the West. They will face a tougher than expected foe in the first round in either Boise State or La Salle. The Broncos played in a tough Mountain West Conference and feature 6-6 Anthony Drmic from Australia. LaSalle played in a hotly contested Atlantic 10 Conference and has a scrappy, scoring guard in 6-foot junior Tyreek Duren.
Both La Salle and Boise State had to sweat out Selection Sunday and are happy to be in the Dance. If La Salle beats Boise State then the K-State/La Salle game will be an NCAA rematch of the 1988 tournament first round game.
The Cowboys are the No. 5 seed in the Midwest and have a very, very tough first round game with the Oregon Ducks. The Cowboys have the biggest match up problem for any opponent in the NCAA Tournament - Marcus Smart. Smart has unusual power, ability and competitiveness and will give the smaller Duck guards fits. Yet, the Cowboys ability to make a run in a tough Midwest bracket may rest on the explosive ability of Markel Brown. Brown struggled in the Big 12 Championship, but when the Cowboys have won their biggest games, Brown has been highly productive. Le'Bryan Nash is key if he plays to his strengths and stays out of foul trouble.
I'm perplexed with the Cowboys draw. Oregon is under-seeded as a No. 12 seed. Dana Altman's Ducks WON the Pac-12 Tournament title and nearly won the regular season title. The Ducks won 26 games and have similar athletic ability as Oklahoma State. Jonathan Lloyd was strong in the Pac-12 Tournament and Dominic Artis is an outstanding young freshman point guard. The Ducks have glue in senior E.J. Singler. However, Oregon doesn't have a good match-up for Marcus Smart - but no team in the tournament does.
The Cyclones have been one of the most enjoyable teams to cover this year. Fred Hoiberg has worked matchups to his advantage all season and into a No. 10 seed in the West Region. The Cyclones have a challenging game with Notre Dame, but the Irish had better be ready to guard 3-point shooting from all FIVE Cyclone players.
The Cyclones are the nation's best 3-point shooting team but their unusual strength is that all five Iowa State starters can shoot 3's with volume and efficiency. Plus, few teams in the NCAA Tournament have a player off the bench as explosive as Tyrus McGee, the Big 12's BEST 3-point shooter. Iowa State has faltered when Hoiberg's team has not defended well at crucial moments in a game. Iowa State also can get anxious to shoot their 3's and lose their shooting rhythm and timing.
Notre Dame finished 5-4 in their final 9 games but played a tough Big East schedule to finish the year. Mike Brey's Irish have one of the toughest inside players in the country in 6-9, 246-pound Jack Cooley that poses a big threat to the Cyclones. The Irish also have good guards in 6-2 junior Eric Atkins and 6-5 junior Jerian Grant. Yet, all five Irish defenders better guard the 3-point line.
Lon Kruger's Sooners ended the regular season is disappointing fashion losing at TCU and blowing a lead in losing to Iowa State in Kansas City. However, the Sooners have the talent and depth to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Romero Osby is anxious to play well in the Big Dance. The Sooners are balanced on the front line with Osby, Amath M'Baye and Cameron Clark. The Sooner guards may hold the key to a win over San Diego State. The Aztecs are athletic and force seven steals a game.
The interesting facet of this game is that Kruger is matched up against an old Mountain West Conference adversary in San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher. The two squared off for seven years when Kruger was the head coach at UNLV.
The Aztecs were somewhat of a disappointment after a 14-2 start. SDSU lost five of its last nine games but are still dangerous. Again, Oklahoma shares the rock solid South bracket with Kansas. If the Sooners beat San Diego State, they would probably have to face Georgetown.
March 15, 2013 -- Doug Bell, Big 12 Network - @DougBellESPN
The Iowa State fans were so loud the Sprint Center sounded like Hilton Coliseum on Thursday. They were one of the factors as the Cyclones roared from behind to beat Oklahoma and record their first victory in eight years in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship.
I talked with head coach Fred Hoiberg after the game and he was relieved and awfully proud of his team for pulling off their best comeback of the season to set up a third meeting against mighty Kansas in the semifinals. It's hard to forget the first two meetings. Ben McLemore, the mega talented redshirt freshman, banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime in Lawrence and KU won 97-89. McLemore was 6-for-6 that night from behind the arc and his legend was just beginning to grow. While the January 9 encounter was good, the sequel in Ames on February 25 was even better. A controversial finish in regulation led to a legendary overtime performance by KU senior Elijah Johnson, who poured in a career-best 39 points to frustrate the Cyclones again, 108-96.
Iowa State looks to rewrite the ending of this trilogy in KC. Will Clyburn helped lead the comeback against the Sooners, as NBA scouts are taking notes at the 6-7 senior's versatility. He picked up his fourth foul against Oklahoma with 4:30 to play and his team trailing by seven points, and told Fred Hoiberg not to take him out because, "I'm feeling it". He scored on three straight possessions to lead the comeback. As good as he was scoring 17 points with 8 assists, Melvin Ejim had the best overall game with 23 points and 12 rebounds - his league leading 14th double-double of the season.
Kansas is set to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tourney according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi and will likely play their first two games here at the Sprint Center next week. They feel at home in this building and looked especially sharp against Texas Tech shooting a championship-record 66 percent for the game. KU and Iowa State have combined for 390 points in their first two meetings and more of the same is expected Friday night.
Regular season co-champion Kansas State looked rock solid in handling Texas for the third time this season. The Wildcats held Longhorns star Myck Kabango scoreless, which put a smile on Bruce Weber's face as he stopped off at Studio 66 after the game to discuss his team's 26th victory. Coach Weber told us his team is starting to play its best basketball of the season. The Wildcats enjoyed home cooking during the game with an enthusiastic crowd, and afterwards, going out to dinner with their families.
Oklahoma State expended a ton of energy holding off a furious Baylor comeback. The Cowboys have had a knack all season for letting teams rally against them late in games. Le'Bryan Nash, playing the best basketball of his young career scored three huge buckets in the final two minutes to keep the Bears down. The NBA scouts were sitting in the end zone in full force watching every move of the Cowboys Marcus Smart. He's a special talent who plays with unusual intensity on both ends of the floor. Like the Wildcats, OSU is a balanced team that doesn't force shots. Interestingly enough, the two squads met in the first game of the Big 12 season and the last game, each winning at home.
I walk to the Sprint Center every day from my hotel and the path leads through the Power & Light district, which serves as the best backdrop for a conference tournament in the country. There will be plenty of people trying to buy and sell tickets for the semifinals. Prices will be high with availability very low, unless you are willing to pay top dollar. The best seat in the house might be your couch, watching us on the Big 12 Network, starting with Studio 66 at 6:30 CT. I'll talk to you then!
Kansas City .... Here We Come!
March 11, 2013 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network - @davearmstrong12
If you're a fan of compelling stories, drama, suspense and great basketball...you'll want to be present for the 2013 Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship at Sprint Center in Kansas City. The Power & Light District will be hopping with hoops fans from all over the Midwest. Before we look at the matchups, let's take a brief look back at how we got here.
The Sunflower State has bragging rights in the Big 12 this year. The Kansas Jayhawks won their ninth straight title, and Kansas State their first Conference crown since 1977. The two will share the title with Kansas getting the top seed thanks to its two victories versus K-State during the regular season. No team from a power six conference has won nine straight Championships since the days of the Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden and UCLA! It's an amazing run by KU as they add yet another shiny object to their bulging trophy case.
Kansas State was the most consistent team in the league this year. Bruce Weber has had his team focused, and earned the Coach of the Year honors in his first year in the Big 12. K-State has a very proud and great history in men's basketball, so it must be especially pleasing for Wildcat Nation to break the drought of Conference Championships.
While we're passing out kudos, congratulations to the All-Big 12 First Team. Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey from Kansas. Rodney McGruder of Kansas State. Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State and Romero Osby of Oklahoma.
Six teams earned the right to miss the action on Wednesday. In order of seeding, they are Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Baylor. The action starts Wednesday night at 6:00 pm CT with West Virginia facing Texas Tech. The Mountaineers won both meetings in the regular season, although the game in Morgantown was decided by just two points. After that, Texas will meet TCU. Both teams are coming into Kansas City on a high. The Horned Frogs beat Oklahoma in their finale, and the Longhorns came back from 17 down to beat the Red Raiders in Lubbock in overtime. Texas won the two meetings with TCU and should be favored to move into action on Thursday. But the Horned Frogs two Conference victories this year are against Kansas and the aforementioned OU, definitely not something to take lightly.
The top six seeds will play Thursday. Oklahoma and Iowa State will play the rubber game of their series. Each team beat the other handily on their home court. Let's see what happens in a neutral setting. Next up is Kansas vs. the winner of WVU and Tech. The night session will feature co-champ Kansas State against either the Longhorns or the Horned Frogs. Then Oklahoma State meets Baylor. The Bears are coming off their most impressive win of the year, a big victory over Kansas that keeps their NCAA hopes alive.
The weather will be great and the basketball is sure to be terrific! I hope you will join us in Kansas City. If not, be sure to watch all the action on the Big 12 Network, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN.
Choosing Five Is Not Easy
March 8, 2013 – Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network
Each year, as the close to the regular season draws near, it is common among those of us who follow the Big 12 Conference to have postseason accolade conversations with each other. Many times the topics include Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, etc. Varying opinions and insights obviously occur often.
However, the dominate question debated is typically - who are the elite five players who should be selected to the All-Big 12 First Team squad? In fact, many of the "experts" in the past have had their all-conference team already decided with several games remaining on the slate.
Appropriately this season has been different. For the 2012-13 campaign, it has not been so clear-cut or easy heading into this last weekend of play. This year it appears that many have not been able to "settle" on their top five players in what has proved to once again be one of the best conferences in college basketball. It is not because they are wishy-washy. It is because this year there are legitimately eight or nine candidates having All-Big 12 First Team type of years.
With all the publications these days that provide us information and opinions on college basketball, don't be surprised if you see countless combinations of All-Big 12 First Team selections. Once you get past freshmen standouts Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State and Ben McLemore of Kansas, it gets particularly tougher and tougher to leave some players off the list.
Let's briefly highlight this list of players. If pondered candidly, you'll see that it's hard to stop at five first-teamers. Even if you're dead-set on your first team, objectively you'd have to admit that it is not crystal clear who should and shouldn't be on this elite group.
Marcus Smart – Forget all his stat stuffing, Smart has made Oklahoma State relevant again with his confidence and will to win. No player has made a bigger impact on his teammates and made everyone around him better than he has.
Ben McLemore – Tremendous shooter and scorer and is Kansas' most talented offensive player as well as perfectly meshed with four starting seniors. If he will translate the numbers he puts up in Allen Fieldhouse into the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks could be in another Final Four.
Rodney McGruder – One of my all-time favorites. McGruder quietly knocks down shots, rebounds and defends. He is a consistently solid player who is K-State's heart and soul (who by the way is playing for a Big 12 title this weekend). Because he is not flashy, he is sometimes underrated.
Jeff Withey – His transformation as a player from the time he arrived at Kansas is amazing. Teams have had to "tweak" their offense to bring him away from the basket so he couldn't dominate the paint as much (120 blocks). In addition, he is a top 10 scorer and rebounder in the league and shoots 58 percent from the floor.
Romero Osby – Ro may be the most challenging match-up defensively in the Big 12 because of size, strength and skill set. He is a combination of post game, shooting-touch and the ability to take bigger 4's and 5's off the dribble which is why Osby is top five in scoring, rebounding , field goal percentage and free throw percentage. Also, Osby may be the most influential team leader in the league along with Marcus Smart.
Pierre Jackson – Although Baylor has struggled lately and has a tough road to the NCAA Tournament ahead, Jackson still has the best playmaking ability in the league which is evident by being the conference's top scorer and assist man. He is scary because he can score or create even when the man guarding him is doing a respectable job.
Markel Brown – No longer just an athlete who plays hoops, Brown has become a complete player in his junior year. The Big 12's third-leading scorer shoots 38 percent from long-range and has become an excellent rebounder and solid defender from the guard position. NBA scouts have noticed this too as he now finds himself as a potential high selection on many draft boards.
Will Clyburn – The smooth-playing transfer from Utah has flown a little under the radar because Iowa State is so balanced offensively. However, his numbers speak for themselves as he is seventh in the conference in scoring and sixth in rebounding. If Clyburn were on a team that featured him more often, those numbers would easily increase.
Melvin Ejim – All Ejim has done is led the league in rebounding while only being 6'6". Basically averaging a double-double, he is the biggest reason Iowa State is able to play at the pace they do because of his ability to rebound and get it to the outlet. In addition he, along with Georges Niang, allows Fred Hoiberg to stretch the floor offensively and almost perfectly take advantage of their great spacing.
Jockeying For Position
March 4, 2013 – Rich Zvosec, Big 12 Network - @CoachZZ
Moving into the last week of the season means a variety of things for the 10 teams in the Big 12. Also, it gives each coach a chance to clearly emphasize what is most important (besides winning) to their respective program.
As we look at the bottom of the league it may appear to fans that these four teams have nothing to play for, but in reality they all do have a goal to achieve as they move forward. Here's a look at some goals for these teams:
TCU and West Virginia
Both teams have struggled to say the least in their first year in the league. West Virginia still has a chance for Bob Huggins to avoid only the second losing season in his storied career. Plus, he will have Iowa State at home with an opportunity to give senior Deniz Kilicli a proper send-off and for continued maturation of his young backcourt of Eron Harris and Terry Henderson. Trent Johnson at TCU is continuing to work toward implementing his system with the Horned Frogs and playing well right now is just as important as the final score.
Texas Tech and Texas
These two teams have battled adversity in different ways this year and for Texas it is still coming together as a team. Losing Myck Kabongo for the majority of the season turned out to be a debilitating blow to the Longhorns, but with him back in the lineup they are capable of making some noise. Chris Walker and his players at Tech have been through the ringer this year. Coach Walker has done a tremendous job of keeping this team together while serving as the Interim Head Coach. Ending the season on a positive note would be huge for the Red Raiders and a young, up-and-coming point guard in Josh Gray.
Baylor and Iowa State
These two teams will be playing for their lives this week as they need victories to secure an NCAA bid. Baylor has an opportunity to score big points on Saturday as it hosts Kansas. A win against the Jayhawks and the tournament resume looks a lot better to the committee. Meanwhile, over in Ames, Iowa State will entertain Oklahoma State with a chance to erase the memories of the two tight losses to Kansas. Finishing with 10 or more wins in this conference and you are almost assured of an NCAA bid.
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State
Both the Sooners and Cowboys look to be locks for the NCAA field. Now it is about seeding. Finish strong this week and in the conference tournament and you can earn a top seven seed and avoid the dreaded 8-9 game in the NCAA Tournament. It will be a huge step forward for the Sooners as Coach Kruger will take his fifth different school to the dance - a feat no other coach has accomplished. Coach Travis Ford's team still has a chance to jump into a tie for the conference regular-season championship with two victories this week. They will face off against Kansas State, but will need some help with the Jayhawks. Also, a regular season championship could mean a top four seed.
Kansas and Kansas State
It has been a great year thus far in the Sunflower State. With two wins Kansas will win its ninth straight Big 12 title. The Jayhawks will need to go on the road and play with the type of senior leadership shown all year by Withey, Young, Releford and Johnson. It could also give them a No. 1 seed going into the NCAA Tournament. Over in Manhattan, Bruce Weber has done a remarkable job with the Wildcats who are two wins away from the school's first conference since 1977. Why the national media is not talking about him for Coach of the Year and a top two seed is beyond me.
All I know is that it is going to be a fun Big 12 Championship in Kansas City as there is no team that is an odds-on favorite to win the conference tournament. So, regardless of what team you root for, put on your school colors and go cheer till your blue in the face. That is what makes this time of year so maddening or should I say March Madness.
Big 12 Bubble Watch
March 2, 2013 – Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network - @Stephen_Speaks
There's only one week of Big 12 Conference play remaining, starting with this Saturday. Today is the first day of March which means "madness" is about to ensue. There is one thing that always occurs before "March Madness" and that is the emergence of the "bubble". It is eagerly anticipated by some, while others wish to avoid it like the plague.
There are three Big 12 teams on, around or in the "bubble", and I'm going to talk about their chances and what they need to do to go "dancing" in March.
You would think with a "bad" loss on the road at Texas recently (a team with an RPI of 125), that Oklahoma would firmly be on the bubble. Projections at this point have the Sooners in the tournament, but I think they still need a couple more wins to solidify that standing. The thing that really helps Oklahoma is on top of an exceptional RPI of 25, they have a strength schedule rating of 14 which shows the selection committee that not only did they play a tough schedule, but they went on the road to face tough competition.
Of all the bubble teams Oklahoma has the most favorable schedule to finish out the season, facing Iowa State and West Virginia at home and then traveling to Fort Worth to play TCU. On paper, Oklahoma should be favored to win all three games, with really only Iowa State looking like the most difficult matchup. OU needs to win at least one of the last three to make sure they make the NCAA Tournament field
The Cyclones are going to need a little more "Hilton Magic" to go dancing during March Madness. The recent win at Baylor helped their cause, but they are just 2-6 versus teams in the RPI top 50. ISU presently has an RPI of 54 with a strength schedule of 73. Both of those numbers scream "bubble" and show they have some work to do. With road games at Oklahoma and West Virginia and with a home visit by Oklahoma State in the middle, I believe that the Cyclones need to win two out of the next three games to assure themselves a spot in Big Dance.
The last team on the bubble watch is the most puzzling of the three because they have the most talent in the group. At the beginning of the season, they were picked to finish second in the Big 12 and challenge Kansas for the title. I covered the game in Morgantown this week when Baylor pulled it out in the end versus West Virginia and was impressed (finally) with the toughness that the Bears exhibited. With a "Bubblesque" RPI of 59 and a very respectable strength schedule of 36, the Bears have the most difficult remaining schedule of all bubble squads. With upcoming visits from the two teams tied for first in the Big 12 (Kansas and K-State) and a road visit to a Texas team whose record does not reflect the talent or confidence they are playing with at this point in the season, the Bears have a difficult road ahead. I believe wining two out of three will get them in, which means they have to defeat either Kansas or Kansas State or both if they lose to Texas. A tough task indeed, but at this time of the year, it's all about putting on your Big Boy pants and winning games, or otherwise you end up going home.
A Quest For History
February 28, 2013 – Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network - @mitchholthus
There has been little discussion in Big 12 circles about K-State's unique opportunity to be the Conference champion in both football and men's basketball in the same academic year. A historical analysis of all the Big 12 member institutions shows how infrequent the opportunity is to be a "dual champion" in both sports.
It has happened only twice in Big 12 history. The Texas Longhorns won the Big 12 football championship (and National Championship) in 2005. In addition, the 'Horns tied for the Big 12 men's basketball title with Kansas that same academic year. Similarly, the Oklahoma Sooners won the Big 12 football crown in 2004 and also tied Kansas for the basketball championship during the 2004-05 campaign.
Below is a table showing the Big 12 member schools and the total number of times each school has won the conference football and men's basketball championships in the same academic year. Also included is the last academic year the feat was accomplished and in which conference the championships were won:
|School||# Dual Titles||Last Year||Conference|
|Oklahoma State||4||1953-54||Missouri Valley|
There is a lot to be determined in the Big 12 men's basketball schedule the next 10 days. There is also plenty of drama as the regular season race, seedings for the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship in Kansas City and potential NCAA bids are earned. However, in K-State's case, they also are chasing a very elusive and rare athletic accomplishment.
Embarrassment Of Riches
February 22, 2013 – Brad Sham, Big 12 Network
We're nearing tournament time. You know what that means - even more attention on college basketball coaches.
The way television treats coaches in general, and college coaches in particular, is interesting. Think of a team sport. Think of an eventful moment in a game. Pro, college or high school, if it's on TV, what do we see? A shot of the coach. What's his or her reaction? Will they erupt? Will they be serene? Funny? Outrageous?
I'm not sure where the coach as king phenomenon came from. Imagine trying to close a business deal and having cameras trained on your boss. Imagine a "moment" with your kids and having the attention trained on you for your reaction.
But it's almost tournament time, and in the Big 12 Championship in Kansas City, in conference tournaments across the land, and in the NCAAs and the NIT, attention is about to be paid to college basketball coaches like at no other time.
In the Big 12's case, this is very, very good news.
The balance in the league among the teams is demonstrably as good as ever. Kansas is probably still the best team, but not dominant, not rip through the league dominant. That means the quality is outstanding across the board. And it's that way because of the coaches.
You can start with the Big 12 teams having the toughest times and look at their head coaches. TCU? You know, the ones who beat Kansas? Trent Johnson has skins on the wall, having taken three different teams to the NCAAs. Rick Barnes at Texas? 14 straight years in the NCAA Tournament speaks for itself. Bob Huggins at West Virginia? A probable Hall of Famer, and having done a West Virginia game with another to come, trust me, as engaged as ever. Chris Walker at Texas Tech has shown his mettle under the most trying circumstances.
Now look at the six contenders. Bill Self? His name is his badge. They do not come better as coaches or people, which he has proven over and over. Travis Ford at Oklahoma State is a rising star. Watch his team. He has some exceptional players and he is proving he knows how to use them, motivate them and get more of them. Scott Drew at Baylor? Please. Two Elite Eights in three years, bringing back a program from where Baylor's was? Again, skins on the wall. Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State is a personal favorite. Hoiberg has been able to take his unique knowledge of his market, combine it with his NBA expertise and play an exciting style that fills Hilton Coliseum and has his team in postseason regularly, which they will be again.
I've intentionally left Lon Krueger and Bruce Weber as the last two. Krueger also has taken multiple teams to the Dance, and in fact will probably become the first coach ever to take five different schools to the Tournament when Oklahoma gets its bid in about three weeks. The minute Krueger returned to the league last year, it got better.
And ditto Bruce Weber, who might well be the Big 12 Coach of the Year. Kansas State is tough everywhere, and Weber has been a tremendous addition to the league, challenging for the championship with just three weeks to play. With players he mostly had to fit to his system.
Bring on the tournament and its TV attention to the coaches. It's definitely a Big 12 strength.
February 19, 2013 – Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network - @mitchholthus
My Wednesday night ESPNU Big 12 partner Matt Doherty and I had just completed presenting the Texas Tech-Oklahoma State game on February 13. Both of us immediately opened our iPads to check on the results of the other games that night. One notable event of the evening was the immediate influence Myck Kabongo had in Texas' win over Iowa State.
Kabongo, a Canadian, had been suspended until the UT-ISU game. Kabongo's return not only 're-started' Texas hopes for salvaging its season, it also 're-started' an ongoing discussion Matt and I have had all year concerning the impact that Canadian players are having in American college basketball.
According to the website o.canada.com, there are nearly 100 Canadian players now playing Division I college basketball in the United States. Some of the nation's best players have "crossed the border". Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk could lead the Zags to the Final Four. Other great Canadian players include Stanford's Dwight Powell, UNLV's Anthony Bennett and Kentucky's Kyle Wiltjer.
The Big 12 is no exception. Kabongo was a highly regarded recruit from Toronto, Canada. The Texas Longhorns had already tapped into the Canadian pipeline with Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph-both of whom are now in the NBA. Baylor's Brady Heslip, a native of Burlington, Ontario, has been one of the Big 12's best 3-point shooters the past two years. Iowa State's Melvin Ejim, one of the league's top rebounders, is from Toronto, Ontario. Texas Tech has received a big lift this year from Dejan Kravic who is from London, Ontario and has dual citizenship with Canada and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Kravic's Red Raider teammate Ty Nurse is from Vancouver, British Columbia.
There are several theories on why the Canadian player participation is growing in American college basketball. Some infer that the influence of Steve Nash's career in college basketball and the NBA is a reason. Nash was born in South Africa, but he grew up in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, and has long been a Canadian hero. Another reason is the increase in structure and coaching in both the Canadian schools and the Canadian AAU programs.
The Canadian AAU teams are continually getting stronger - especially in the Toronto area. Kabongo, Thompson and Joseph were all closely linked through Canadian AAU teams. In addition, Canada has relaxed its immigration policies the past 20 years. That has led to over two million immigrants and refugees to Canada the past two decades. Tech's Kravic is an example with his dual citizenship.
The Canadian influence is here to stay in college hoops in the United States. The No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2013 is Andrew Wiggins from Thornhill, Ontario. Or, maybe the Canadian influence has been here from the beginning. The inventor of the game Dr. James Naismith is a native of Ramsay Township, Ontario - CANADA.
February 15, 2013 – Rich Zvosec, Big 12 Network - @CoachZZ
Most fans see a coach on the sideline fighting for that competitive advantage, but what many don't see is that basketball coaches are always striving to make a difference in their player's lives. Many coaches spread this philosophy in the community as well. In the Big 12, the coaches understand the importance of giving back to the people around them and strive to make this a reality.
As I started to research this topic I was amazed, but not surprised, at the amount of time, talent and treasure that each of the Big 12 coaches give to charitable causes. Many of their endeavors were sparked by people who touched their lives.
All of the coaches participate in the Coaches vs. Cancer initiative by the NABC but some go a step further in the fight against cancer. West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins has started a foundation in honor of his mother, Norma Mae Huggins. This endowment is for cancer research. Bruce Weber of Kansas State is one of the most active coaches in the Coaches vs. Cancer program and is currently serving on the organization's council. Coach Weber and Oklahoma State Coach Travis Ford are also taking part in the Infinite Charity Challenge. In 2007, he was the recipient of the Coaches vs. Cancer Champion Award. This award was won by Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger >in 2012. Coach Kruger has been very involved in community and charity work at every stop in his coaching tenure.
While at Florida, Coach Kruger was selected as the Alachua "Volunteer of the Year" for his work fighting domestic violence and promoting a drug-free environment. Also, all of the proceeds from his book, "The X's and O's of Success: A Playbook for Leaders in Business" go to the United Way.
At Baylor, Scott Drew has developed a program where the Bears invite children battling cancer and their families to games and give them full access to the team. The kids get an opportunity to go into the locker room with the players and sit right behind the bench at games.
Coach Bill Self at Kansas has dedicated his charity work to helping kids through the Assists Foundation that he started upon his arrival in Lawrence. Each year, thousands of dollars are generated to help youth organizations in the community.
After departing the NBA due to a heart issue Iowa State coach, Fred Hoiberg, has dedicated his time to helping raise money to fight heart disease. He is the primary area spokesperson for the American Heart Association. He sponsors heart walks and spends time each summer at Camp Odayin (a camp for kids who suffer from heart disease).
Coach Rick Barnes and Trent Johnson at TCU are active in many charities. Barnes is a mainstay in the Neighborhood Longhorn Program that helps motivate students to excel in the classroom. Coach Johnson has spent time working with both the Samaritan's Feet, American Diabetes Society and Troops First Program to name a few of his charitable activities.
To a man, each of the Big 12 coaches understand the importance of giving back and I would ask you to do the same. Give of your talents, time or treasury to help those around you and build a better community.
Valentine's Day Cards From Fans
February 12, 2013 – Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network - @Stephen_Speaks
As Valentine's Day draws near and scores of significant others scurry around to make their last minute purchase for their beloved it got me thinking about college basketball and its fans. Never is a love affair more apparent than with college sports and fans. Most people have sentimental ties to their team from either attending that college or living near the institution. Even though at times some fans might take their love to stalker levels, we all must remember that fan really is short for fanatic.
Valentine's Day made me think of each individual school's fans and what player or coach they would want to send appreciation to on this special day. Not necessarily the MVP of the team but more like the HEART and soul of a team.
Cory Jefferson, who just recorded his eighth double-double in a victory over Texas Tech, knows what it's like to long for something. For three years he practiced and waited and then practiced some more, waiting for his time to shine. After redshirting after his sophomore season he emerged this year not only as a leader but as one of the top performers of the Big 12. Big Valentine Bear hug for him.
Fred Hoiberg, coach of the Cyclones, in his third year, has again made believers of the rest of the Big 12 by bringing together a group of transfers, JUCO players and four-year players and made them into a dangerous team. Unlike some coaches who coach a system, coach Hoiberg seems to remember his playing days when coaching this young group of athletes as he created a system to take advantage of their individual skill sets. But the main reason coach Hoiberg gets the Valentine's Day attention is for bringing back that love affair between the Cyclone faithful and Hilton Coliseum magic. The Mayor and Hilton Magic...back together again.
In this age of one and done it's rare to find a perennial power like Kansas with four senior starters on their roster. Nobody appreciates the love of playing for ones fans more than seniors who can sense the end to that journey. With fifth-year seniors Jeff Withey, Travis Releford and Kevin Young in the starting lineup along with senior Elijah Johnson, KU has again been rewarded with a top 10 team. Yes, they've had multiple setbacks during Big 12 conference play but who better to get them back on the straight and narrow than four seniors who have experienced Jayhawk love and strive to get it back.
When I think of Angel Rodriguez, I think of a young man that at times has more than enough heart to go around. He plays with a reckless abandon that has endeared him to K-State fans and reminds us all that it's the size of the heart, not package it comes in, that makes all the difference.
Buddy Hield gets it for Oklahoma because he always seems to be the one putting a smile on everyone's face. Even though he wasn't the most highly-recruited of the talented group of freshman that head coach Lon Kruger brought in, he definitely put his imprint on the team with his heady play and endless energy. He was leading the Sooners in minutes per game at 26.8 minutes per game. I say was because in Monday's game he suffered a fracture in the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and will be out for four-to-six weeks. So yes, Buddy would surely appreciate all the love he could get right now.
It's hard to say HEART or soul without thinking about Marcus Smart. The young man from Flower Mound, Texas has infused HEART, soul and passion to a team that seemed to lack that very ingredient in previous seasons. His game against Kansas illustrated, at least this year, the vulnerability of Kansas in the Big 12. As long as Marcus Smart dons the orange and black you know HEART will always be displayed on the court.
Coach Trent Johnson has brought some excitement to the men's basketball team that in recent history had only been reserved for the football squad. Beating a top a top five team in the country is something the administration envisioned for the future – just maybe not in his first year of coaching. A big box of hearts goes out to Coach Johnson for that season defining win over the Jayhawks.
The Longhorns will get an early Valentine treat when their point guard Myck Kabongo is welcomed back into the fold on Wednesday versus Iowa State. It will take Kabongo time to shake the rust off get back to the form that made the Longhorns a feared opponent with him on the roster. But I'm sure with all the outpouring of love from the fans, it won't take him long.
The Red Raiders have had an up and down tumultuous year. After attending a practice a couple weeks ago I left impressed with the enthusiasm and upbeat nature of the team despite being repeatedly overmatched in games. The fan appreciation of this effort was evident by the support the following day in a hard fought loss to Kansas State. As a former player, I hate moral victories but to see the Red Raiders play with all heart in front of odds that at times seem insurmountable, it left me with a good feeling. Hearts all around Raider Nation.
Coach Bob Huggins or Hugs as he is referred to by those who know him, would probably propose a group hug rather than a box of Hershey's Kisses that you would normally get on Valentine's Day because of the difficulties acclimating to Big 12 play and Big 12 travel. The Mountaineers have weathered the early storm and are now at 5-5 in conference play and attempting to make a run at making the tourney. WVU is finally displaying the defensive grit that the typical Bob Huggins coached team displays. A Valentine's Day card for the defense.
Defend, Rebound and Take Care Of The Ball
February 8, 2013 – Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network
I was blessed with the opportunity to play for excellent coaches in my basketball days. My high school coach, Jerry Havens, was known as one of the best "teachers" of the game in the state of Oklahoma. Don Sumner, my junior college coach, amassed over 680 wins and was inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame. While at Oklahoma State I was fortunate to play for the Legendary Eddie Sutton, also a Hall of Famer, who consistently won at a high level no matter what personnel he had.
"Defend, rebound, and take care of the ball" were perhaps the most used words repeated to those teams during my time as a player for each of these men. At practice, at halftime, during pre-game meal and certainly after losses or games in which the team played poorly this was ingrained in us. I don't ever recall Coach Sutton saying "make a bunch of shots and you'll win" or "let's go try to outscore our opponent tonight!" I'd be willing to bet Mr. Iba never made those types of comments either. Taking quality or high-percentage shots was obviously mentioned but making shots was rarely referenced. However, "Defend, rebound, and take care of the ball" was heard and taught every day.
Each season as I watch the Big 12 race unfold, I enjoy watching young, individually talented players like a Ben McLemore or Marcus Smart wow us with their ability, knowing that the best basketball of their career is still to come. However, I most enjoy seeing TEAMS progress as they work together and improve collectively at both ends of the court. Each time that ascension occurs; better team defense, good board play, and curtailing turnovers plays a large and significant role in those teams' success.
Obviously, teams that have more talent than others should have an advantage in the Big 12's 18-game round-robin grind, but I have seen plenty of teams over the years that have great "talent" and underachieve. I submit to you that those teams struggled because they were not "defending, rebounding, and taking care of the ball" with enough regularity and struggled despite "talent" and athleticism. Conversely, we have seen some teams that had low expectations given to them by so called experts yet found themselves in the upper-half of the league and the benefactor of an NCAA tourney berth because of a commitment to these concepts.
Statistics certainly do not tell the entire story of a team but over the course of many games they can tell us quite a bit about a program. To illustrate my point, just go look on this very website and find the updated Big 12 Men's basketball team statistics. There you will see the teams at the top of the conference standings, also ranking in the upper-half of the league in statistical categories such as scoring defense, field goal percentage defense, 3-point percentage defense, rebound margin, turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio. All relate to defense, rebounding, and how much a team does or does not turn the ball over. It is NO coincidence that you see the league's best teams at the top of these categories.
TCU recently pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of Big 12 play by upsetting fifth-ranked Kansas, 62-55, in Fort Worth. They didn't have to hit a bunch of shots to do so. TCU shot 39 percent from the floor and managed to only make four 3-point field goals for the game. Yes, Kansas has played uncharacteristically poor in recent days but the Horned Frogs should be given tremendous credit for holding off a much more talented Jayhawk squad down the stretch. How did they do it? TCU held Kansas to 29 percent field goal shooting, including 14 percent from long range. The Frogs were outrebounded by only five. Pretty good for a team that came into the game last in the conference in rebounding margin while KU is No. 1 in the category. I'd say that's holding your own on the glass. In addition, TCU committed just 11 turnovers in the game. Describe this improbable win by TCU how you wish, but to me it looked like it was won by "Defending, Rebounding and Taking Care of the Ball"!
You Can't Make It, Unless You Take It
February 5, 2013 - Doug Bell, Big 12 Network - @DougBellESPN
I'll never forget my high school coach stomping his foot on the sidelines and yelling "shoot shoot!" As I headed to the bench he would add "you can't make it unless you take it". Sound advice, until you missed a few late in games ... I can't repeat what he said next.
As long as the game has been played, those who take and make have left their mark. After watching every Big 12 game over the first month-and-a-half of the season, here are my top eight clutch shooters in Big 12 play. These are the guys I want to see with the ball in their hands and the game on the line.
BEN McLEMORE, KANSAS
He wears number 23 and for good reason. He is the go-to guy for a team that has Final Four written all over it. His last second 3-point bank shot against Iowa State sent the game into overtime helping KU avoid the upset bid. He was 6-for-6 that night from behind the arc. McLemore has a beautiful high release which is the same whether he's shooting from 10 or 25 feet. If you want to teach a youngster how to do it, watch this kid. He's drawn comparisons to Ray Allen.
PIERRE JACKSON, BAYLOR
Like any gunslinger he has no fear and will take a shot from anywhere at any time. He has the green light all the time and has unlimited range which sometimes leads to head-scratching shots. Even still, he's seventh in the league at 36 percent from behind the arc. If you think about getting in his grill, beware because he will blow by you and drive to the hoop. Last season, hit the game winning 3-pointer against Texas A&M with 17 seconds left in the game. In a win against Texas a year ago, he scored 25 points – with 18 in the second half - including 12-of-12 from the free throw line.
STEVEN PLEDGER, OKLAHOMA
He's been hitting big shots for Oklahoma for four years and is currently fourth on the Sooners' all-time 3-point scoring list. As a sophomore, he went 7-of-13 from beyond the arc in a win at Iowa State, finishing with 38 points. Last season, he scored 30 points on 11-of-17 shooting in a victory at K-State. He's an excellent free throw shooter at nearly 84 percent for his career.
RODNEY McGRUDER, KANSAS STATE
He is tough and smart and loves to perform in the clutch. Moves extremely well without the ball, creating open shots coming off screens. As a freshman, he led the Wildcats at 42 percent from behind the arc. In his second year, he poured in 24 points on 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range in an upset of seventh-ranked Texas on Big Monday. Last season, he scored a career-best 33 points against the Longhorns. In Big 12 play this year, he pours in almost three 3-pointers a game and connects at a 42 percent clip.
PHIL FORTE, OKLAHOMA STATE
Forte won the national high school all-star 3-point shooting contest at the Final Four in New Orleans last season. The freshman has attempted more 3-pointers than anyone else in the Big 12 this year. He scored a career-high 26 points against West Virginia two weeks ago and figures to do more of the same in the future.
TYRUS McGEE, IOWA STATE
He is the top 3-point shooter on the team that puts up more from behind the arc than anybody else in the Big 12. McGee is second in the Conference at 44 percent from 3-point land. As a high school senior in Oklahoma, he was one of the leading scores in the nation, posting 36 points a game. In junior college, he connected on 195 treys in two seasons. A year ago, he made six 3-pointers in a matchup against Texas Tech.
BRADY HESLIP, BAYLOR
I remember watching this guy practice at Baylor the year he sat out after transferring from Boston College. He was a machine. His 3-point numbers are slightly down this season at 38 percent because he's drawing more attention from Big 12 defenses. In last year's Big 12 Championship semifinals victory over Kansas, Heslip connected on four 3-pointers and followed that with a Baylor-record nine 3-pointers for 27 points in a third-round NCAA win over Colorado.
DUSTY HANNAHS, TEXAS TECH
A hidden gem down in Lubbock. He has a sweet stroke and as time goes on will take more big shots. Currently making 37 percent of his 3-pointers, he scored 42 points in the 4-A state championship game in Arkansas last season, mostly from behind the arc. He will be a Red Raiders fan favorite for the next three and a half years.
Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State, Travis Ford, Oklahoma State, Steven Henson, Oklahoma, Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network and Reid Gettys, Big 12 Network
They've all put their playing days in the rearview mirror but can still flat-out shoot the rock. I've seen them show off in practice and would bet on any of them in a high stakes game of H-O-R-S-E! They all know what it's like to take it and make it!
A Common Theme
February 1, 2013 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network - @davearmstrong12
If you have been paying attention this season to Big 12 men's basketball, a common theme is quickly developing. You can just browse the topics of the Covering the Baseline blogs to get a sense of just what that theme is.
From Bryndon Manzer's excellent column entitled, "Be Patient with Youth." To Brad Sham's blog, "Youth Will Be Served-Later." Mitch Holthus broached the topic with his insightful piece about Ben McLemore, "A Beneficial Year Away." The common theme is how young the Big 12 feels and truly is this year. Sure, Kansas is leading the conference standings with four senior starters. But it's the aforementioned McLemore that is getting a bulk of the attention. I just saw Rick Barnes' Texas Longhorns live and in person. They certainly aren't long in the tooth. It's a team consisting of all freshmen and sophomores, with two senior walk-ons thrown in for good measure. I'm not even sure that half the squad shaves. We've spent a lot of time in this space rightfully talking about the youth of the Big 12. Talented youth...teenagers with a bright future. But I want to focus on the 10 coaches in charge of these young men.
The Coaches are like parents to these players. I've been blessed with four great kids, as different as night and day. They're mostly grown now and out of the nest. Despite my struggles as a parent, they've turned out great. I got most of my parenting advice from people like Erma Bombeck who once said, "When a child is locked in the bathroom with the water running and he says he's doing nothing, but the dog is barking, call 911."
I'm also reminded of Dave Barry who wrote, "Parenting is Mother Nature's way of assuring that the human race, come what may, will never have disposable income." As challenging as it is to raise kids, imagine doing that for a living. That's why I want to take a moment to thank each and every coach. They have been entrusted with the challenge and opportunity of shaping the lives of these young men.
Think of the hundreds of players they've influenced throughout their collective careers. They've taken kids from a wide variety of backgrounds, adopted them, and helped make them into men. We see the growth on the basketball court, but that's not even half of the story. The coaching that goes on in the lives of these young men is truly inspirational. The growth from the time they step on campus until the time they leave is impressive. So if you are a coach, or someone of influence over the lives of young people, I want to say thanks. Your contribution does not go unnoticed. Your sphere of influence is vast, and most certainly welcome. Thank you very much!
Defense Is The Name Of The Game
January 29, 2013 – Chris Piper, Big 12 Network
Defense is the name of the game.
Have you ever watched one of those 60 Minutes specials about car safety? They show a video of a car traveling at high speed into a wall. The wall doesn't move right? That's kind of the way it is when your favorite high-scoring college basketball team enters conference play. All of a sudden, that 80-points a game team hits conference play and starts scratching out mid 60-point games – if you're lucky.
What's happened here? Have the players forgotten how to score? Did the coach lose his mind and go to his collection of "I know this play stinks but let's run it anyway" plays? No, and no obviously, but what is going on with offense these days? In general, I think you can look at the whole of college basketball and see it is much more difficult to score now than it was 20 years ago. I tried to pull up some tapes of my old games at Kansas to verify this, but soon realized we don't own a VCR anymore! At any rate, here is what we are seeing in today's game.
- The game is much more physical. There's no question more contact is allowed now than ever in the past. My record of 123 fouls in a season at Kansas will never get beaten at this rate. As a defender in the post you are allowed to push the offense off the block. Cutters through the lane can get "chucked" multiple times, throwing off the rhythm of the offense. If you are driving to the basket, prepare yourself to finish "strong" or you have no chance.
- The mid-range game has dropped dramatically. With the advent of the 3-point line, the game has become either shoot the 3, or drive to the basket. Anything in between has become forgotten. We don't have enough time to get into why that is, but the result is a barren wasteland between the 3 point line and the paint. The defense just has to guard the 3 point shot with strong close outs, and be prepared to help in the paint on the drive, otherwise leave them alone.
- Teams are scouted more thoroughly. It is rare that a game is not televised. If it's televised, you can be sure all the digital recorders in all the basketball offices are recording it. The video coordinator then takes it and breaks it down. Each player can get his specific segments to watch. Add in encyclopedia sized printed scouting reports with all the details up to a guy's favorite dessert, and what you have are absolutely no surprises for the defense. Sure you can tweak a few things, maybe throw in a new inbounds play, but when the defense is calling out your plays before you do, you know there's a problem.
- Defense has all of the advantages. The new rule with the automatic foul for clearing the ball above the defenders shoulders drives me absolutely crazy. Sure I know the reason for it, and no I'm not advocating head hunting, but this rule is a knee-jerk reaction that has bad, unintended consequences. The defender can get right up under the player with the ball, with absolutely no fear. Great, right? Wrong. Now the player with the ball is getting jammed up with no place to go. He can't get separation because the defense is allowed to body him as well. Look, there's no place in the game for guys trying to hurt someone, but this could have been dealt with differently.
- Conference play means better and more familiar teams. A quick look at the top five teams in the Big 12 shows an average drop of seven points per game from non-conference games to conference contests. I would be surprised if that number doesn't widen to nine or 10 points by the end of the conference race. Teams play better teams in Conference play, plain and simple. Better teams will have better defenses. Teams are also familiar with each other. As discussed above with scouting, there are no surprises. Even more when players go up against someone they have played against before.
Enjoy it when your team scores, those buckets are hard to come by.
Youth Will Be Served - Later
January 25, 2013 – Brad Sham, Big 12 Network
It's a young man's game, kids.
Of course, what isn't these days? But specifically, I'm thinking of college basketball.
Last year's national championship was the ultimate answer to the question of what happens if you put four or five great freshmen together? Kentucky may be falling on harder times this year, but I don't know many Wildcat fans that would have traded that season they had a year ago.
We can look at the beginnings of this year's Big 12 race for further proof. If Kansas freshman Ben McLemore isn't the best player in the league ... and I'm pretty sure he is ... then it must be Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart. And probably the best player in the league no one knows yet is Georges Niang at Iowa State, but he won't be a secret for long. And have we mentioned Isaiah Austin at Baylor?
Brother Mitch Holthus, in an earlier edition of Covering the Baseline this week, talked about how some players, especially McLemore, are so much more effective for having had a redshirt year. Mitch's well taken point is that this doesn't happen enough, and look at the good it does. Today, permit us to go one step further.
You want good players. If there are enough of them and they're good enough, how young they are might not matter. But you don't get just that right combination very often. And without it, the best TEAMS are still going to have a healthy dose of experience. The Big 12 so far this season is proving that, also.
Not much question so far that Kansas is the best team in the league, at least through these first weeks. Coach Bill Self will not hesitate to tell you one of the reasons is the experience of his team. Sure, it helps to have the best player, who is a freshman. But in Kansas' recent wins, and, trust me, in the wins they'll have in March, the knowledge of Travis Releford and Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson will make them better players, because they'll make better decisions. That happens with experience.
Look at Kansas State, maybe the second-best team, and one adjusting to a new coach and vastly different system. Once they learn what Bruce Weber is teaching, and they're starting to, the experience of seniors Rodney McGruder and Jordan Henriquez and juniors Will Spradling and Shane Southwell will make them a better team. Southwell is a great example of a player whose maturity improvement from one year to the next is almost palpable.
The surprise teams of the early-going might be Oklahoma and Iowa State. The Sooners' Romero Osby is a great example of the value of senior leadership. As good a freshman as Niang is for the Cyclones, coach Fred Hoiberg has him surrounded with so much veteran help: Korie Lucious, Chris Babb and Melvin Ejim.
The opposite end of the spectrum at the moment is Texas, where coach Rick Barnes' young team got younger than a year ago. That team looks like one that will improve as the year advances, especially when Myck Kabongo returns next month. But down the stretch, Texas will have to overcome veteran teams playing with valuable experience.
It's tempting in sports to say that experience is overrated. Certainly there are plenty of examples of young teams doing great things the first time they get the chance.
But there's nothing we do....nothing...that we don't do better after we've done it awhile. Freshmen are great. Great freshmen are even better.
But if you want to see a really good TEAM, look for one with some key ingredients of experience mixed in. There's one coming soon to an arena near you.
A Beneficial Year Away
January 22, 2013 – Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network - @mitchholthus
Kansas freshman forward Ben McLemore will never forget mid-October 2011, a time when something taken from him became a life-changing experience.
McLemore is a strong National Player of the Year candidate in college basketball. McLemore leads the Jayhawks in scoring at 16 points per game. He also is bidding to become the third player in Big 12 history to be both Conference Player and Freshman of the Year (Kevin Durant, Texas 2006-07; Michael Beasley, K-State 2007-08).
In mid-October 2011 McLemore was ruled a partial academic qualifier by the NCAA and was forced to miss the 2011-12 season.
McLemore's "missed season" last year became a year in which the star forward made many positive decisions to prepare him for his breakout season in 2012-13. He embraced his academic studies and showed measurable improvement in his school work at Kansas. KU coach Bill Self told me that McLemore many times was the last player to leave study hall. There were several occasions when McLemore was told that the study area was going to close and he had to leave. Moreover, he was nominated for academic improvement awards last year at the end of the spring semester.
Self also told me that McLemore's appreciation for the game of college basketball increased when he was disallowed the opportunity to play games last season. "Sometimes, when something is taken away, that's when you really appreciate it the most and that's what happened with Ben", Self said.
The other main epiphany of McLemore's year "off" was his work with Kansas Assistant AD for Sport Performance Andrea Hudy. Hudy, who recently was named National College Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year, challenged McLemore in her unique and high-tech power and mobility training approach. Hudy told me that McLemore showed unique zeal and work ethic in greatly improving his physical effectiveness and increasing his "WATTS-force x velocity". Hudy compared McLemore's work to that of Ray Allen and Emeka Okafor, both of whom she coached at UConn and whose training led them to stellar collegiate and professional basketball careers.
Other Big 12 players who had to miss competition last year have shown to be impact players this year, a list that includes; Amath M'Baye of Oklahoma, Will Clyburn of Iowa State and Aaric Murray of West Virginia. However, the leader of the group that had "off" years last year in college basketball is clearly Ben McLemore of Kansas. His year "off" made him one of the most "on" players this year and one of the best in the nation.
Build It, And They Will Come
January 18, 2013 – Rich Zvosec, Big 12 Network - @CoachZZ
A couple of years ago I was in Manhattan to broadcast a Kansas State game. The normal routine is to go watch practice at Bramlage Coliseum the day prior to the contest. However, on this day I found myself watching the Wildcats work out on a second floor practice court in their old gym, Ahearn Field House. They were bumped out of Bramlage due to a women's game. In sharing this story with some of the other coaches in the conference, it brought up some interesting stories of their own.
Prior to the construction of Cooley Pavilion at Texas, Coach Barnes and the Longhorns were forced on one occasion to practice in an elementary school in central Austin during the holiday break. Unfortunately, the court was not sized for college athletes and they were not able to run drills with 10 players on the court (I wish I had a picture of the players trying to drink out of the low drinking fountains!).
Coach Kruger at Oklahoma was able to have a practice facility built when he was at Illinois, but when he moved to UNLV he found his team kicked out of the Thomas and Mack Center for two weeks due to the rodeo. After two weeks of animals running around it left the arena with a distinct "rodeo aroma." Albeit, a unique home court advantage.
Fast forward to this past October as I watched the Wildcats practice in a brand new multi-million dollar practice facility. K-State had joined the rest of the Big 12 in opening up a facility just for basketball (links to each school practice facility are listed below.) Also, Texas Tech will start soon on a new renovation of their old practice facility to bring it to the same standards as the other schools in the conference.
The importance of a facility to call your own cannot be understated in today's competitive college basketball world where every coach is looking for an edge to make is program better. A practice facility has proven vital in three areas: a) Recruiting, b) Player development and c) Team chemistry.
Bringing a recruit onto campus and showing them where he will have a chance to hone his skills is a big boost when trying to get an edge on the competition. It also shows a commitment from the university to the program.
Player development is still vital to the success of a program. Giving a player an opportunity to have access to your practice facility around the clock is more motivation for improvement. As a coach, you would much rather have your players in class or in the gym working on their game as opposed to any other place.
Last, but not least, is the ability for your team to bond and build a positive chemistry. Most practice facilities have spacious locker rooms and/or lounges where players can hang out and play a variety of games, watch television or listen to music. This loose atmosphere helps them become more of a team by building stronger relationships. Not to mention that coaches and players can interact in a relaxed setting and create a "family culture."
Gaining A Competitive Advantage
January 15, 2013 - Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network - @Stephen_Speaks
The Big 12 conference season is well underway and as expected, Kansas has raced out to the front while the rest of the teams jostle for what should be an ultra-competitive "middle of the pack". As the seemingly minor injury to Ben McLemore last night versus Baylor reminds us, every team is but an injury or two away from going from great to good or good to okay or okay to ... you get the point.
As I fly home today amid the flight delays caused by some snow and ice in Dallas, I have time to sit and read the newspaper. Looking at the various headlines made me wonder what the headlines of a Big 12 run newspaper might look like. Here are a few options ....
"The Reemergence of Boomer Sooner"
The good folks of Norman, Oklahoma have been waiting to get asked to dance since their last dancing opportunity in the NCAA Tournament in 2009. The Sooners have three starters coming off the bench and are arguably the deepest team in the Big 12. That depth has played out favorably for second-year coach Lon Kruger as OU is currently 11-3 with a 3-0 conference record and just defeated their in-state rival, Oklahoma State, by nine points at home. With an impressive pre-conference schedule, the Sooners boast an RPI of 14 and are setting themselves up nicely for what should be an opportunity to finally get back on the dance floor.
"Messin with Texas"
The Texas Longhorns are in an unfamiliar position at the bottom of Big 12 standings and are in serious jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. The impact of the Myck Kabongo suspension can clearly be seen with the inconsistent play of a team that gets the majority of its points and rebounds from underclassmen. Starting conference play 0-3 is not the start anyone envisioned but if anyone can rally the troops, veteran coach Rick Barnes is surely up for the task. As is the theme with most sports, "next man up" is ringing true with freshman Javan Felix filling in admirably for Kabongo.
"Newcomers Receive Unkind Welcome"
TCU and West Virginia, who just joined the Big 12, have witnessed first-hand how competitive the league can be, starting the season a combined 1-5 in conference play. TCU was expected to struggle as they moved up to a more competitive "Power 6" basketball conference, but West Virginia is a bit of a head-scratcher as it comes from the basketball rich Big East Conference. I wouldn't be surprised to see WVU make a push towards the middle of the pack in the near future.
"New Team, Same Story"
New Kansas State coach Bruce Weber has made a seamless transition with the over-achieving Wildcats. Weber has been able to bring the offensive freedom of his "motion" offense and blend it with the tough-nosed, gritty defense of former coach Frank Martin to create a monster that is now ranked 16th in the country. Weber has consistently been able to come to a new program and get players to play at a higher level. His ability to do that while also cultivating the offensive rebounding prowess that Martin perfected has this Wildcat team ranked third nationally in offensive rebounding, something no opposing coach enjoys game planning for.
The Big 12 might not have the depth in the top 25 that they have enjoyed in recent years, but that doesn't mean the conference is any less competitive. I expect these headlines to get even more colorful as the season progresses.
Be Patient With Youth
January 11, 2013 – Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network
Right or wrong, in the world of college basketball a conference can build its perceptual strength by what it does in the non-conference during the months of November and December. Early season matchups between representatives of power conferences as well as elite "mid-major" teams provide an exciting potential glimpse of what our favorite basketball month of March could bring. The Big 12 has more than represented itself in years past with outstanding resume building in contests against national foes. In fact, each of the last five seasons the Big 12 has finished as one of the top three basketball conferences in the country, validating itself as one of the best and most consistent leagues in America.
This season the Big 12 didn't have as many marquee wins against out-of-league foes as in the past and has many saying the conference is not as good as it's been. While the Big 12 didn't set the college basketball universe on fire, the conference still has a chance to improve its strength during the conference slate.
Many of the teams in this league are going to continue to get better over the next two months. The reason is that this is an extremely youthful league from top-to-bottom. Possibly the youngest it has been for some time, and with youth must come a little more patience as they learn what it takes to win at this high level. Overall, the Big 12 is young and inexperienced. However, it is not short on the traditional talent it has so consistently enjoyed over the years.
Here's a look at few of the Big 12's teams and their reliance on talented, but inexperienced, players that will only get better over the next several weeks.
The Cowboys start two freshmen and a sophomore in Le'Bryan Nash. Phil Forte, yet another freshman, is the sixth man and plays 26 minutes a game. Three of the top five scorers are freshmen.
Four of the Sooners top six players are newcomers to the Big 12 and have also amassed the most minutes of playing time. Currently, the starting backcourt is freshman Je'lon Hornbeak and freshman Buddy Hield. Another frosh, Isaiah Cousins, has 10 starts to his credit but now provides a spark off the bench.
Nobody can claim as much youth as Rick Barnes. Currently, 10 players are averaging 11 minutes or more. Not one is an upperclassman! Four sophomores and six freshmen make up the rotation. In addition, the Longhorns have had to play without the services of "veteran" sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo for the first 23 games of the season.
The Jayhawks start four seniors. However, it is freshmen super-star Ben McLemore that leads them in scoring and is the biggest reason they have been so good offensively thus far. Also, once Bill Self goes to his bench, its two freshmen - Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor - along with sophomore point guard Naadir Tharpe that provide the depth.
The Wildcats rely heavily on underclassmen. Three sophomores make up the starting lineup and they are three of the top five scorers as well. Point guard Angel Rodriquez, just a second year collegian, is gradually improving at managing his team but is still capable of stretches where his inexperience shows.
Seven of Bob Huggins' nine-player rotation is freshmen or sophomores. With newcomer Aaric Murray, that makes eight out of the nine underclassmen or newcomers to the team for the Mountaineers. The starting backcourt is comprised of sophomores Jabarie Hinds and Juwan Staten, while the two best perimeter shooters are freshmen Terry Henderson and Eron Harris.
17 Reasons To Get Excited About Big 12 Hoops
January 8, 2013 – Doug Bell, Big 12 Network - @DougBellESPN
We tipped off our 17th season of Studio 66 last Saturday and I'm looking forward to covering another exciting season of Big 12 hoops. In honor of the 17th year of the Big 12, here are 17 reasons you don't want to miss this season.
1 - ROCK CHALK JAYHAWK
Bill Self probably doesn't get the credit he deserves around the country but he's as good as it gets. This year's squad is deeper and more explosive than last year's bunch that lost to Kentucky in the finals. Ben McLemore is off the charts good, and Jeff Withey is the best big man in the country! Enjoy this team as they go for nine straight Big 12 titles.
2 - BEWARE OF THE PHOG
Allen Fieldhouse continues to be one of the most unique venues in all of college basketball. Watching on television is one thing, but swaying back and forth late in the second half with nearly 17,000 fanatics chanting "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" is worth every penny.
3 - GET SMART
Travis Ford has the difference-maker he has desperately needed ever since he arrived in Stillwater. Marcus Smart is a 6-4 point guard who plays with maturity way beyond his years. All the great teams have a top notch point guard and the Cowboys hope to ride him all the way to the Georgia Dome.
4 - GALLAGHER IBA ROCKS AGAIN
It looked like old times at Gallagher Iba when Gonzaga came to town two weeks ago. The seats were full and the crowd noise was bouncing off the rafters just like it did when Eddie Sutton had his great teams.
5 – WELCOME BACK HUGGY BEAR
It's good to have one of the best coaches in the country back in the Big 12. Bob Huggins helped make K-State relevant again on the national stage spending a year in the Little Apple before his alma mater called. He's fun to watch on the sidelines as he works up a lather coaxing every ounce of energy from his Mountaineers.
6 - LADIES FIRST
The Big 12 women feature five ranked teams in the top 25 and the best player in the nation in Brittney Griner. Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey is aiming for back-to-back titles and her third overall at Baylor. With all five starters back, another banner has a good chance to be raised at the Ferrell Center.
7 - LITTLE NUMBER 55
Baylor's Pierre Jackson is a perfect example of big things coming in a little package. The 5-9 senior who wears a big man's number (55) puts up huge numbers in points, assists and steals. He might be the Big 12 Player of the Year.
8 - LA FIESTA IN FT. WORTH
A trip to TCU in Fort Worth means a stop at Joe T. Garcia's, one of the best Mexican restaurants in the state of Texas. There are no menus which makes the choices easy. Mouthwatering salsa makes this a must stop either before or after the games. Sounds like a good spot for a production meeting for the Big 12 Network crew!
9 - THE BIG "O"
Romero Osby is playing at a high level for Lon Kruger and Oklahoma. The senior power forward has broad shoulders and just might carry the Sooners to a postseason tournament.
10 - BOMBS AWAY
Iowa State has led the league in 3-pointers made in each of Fred Hoiberg's first two seasons and that is not likely to change. "The Mayor" has brought back the magic to Hilton Coliseum and his wide open offense is the main reason why.
11 - COOKED IN THE PIT
It's always cold in Ames during hoops season and the best place to warm up is Battles Bar-B-Q. The homemade sauces will have you coming back for more and more.
12 - RODNEY ROCKS
Rodney McGruder has gotten better each and every year he's been at K-State. He's developed his offensive game and now is one of the top threats in the Big 12.
13 - GO WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME
Kite's Bar and Grill in Manhattan is where K-State fans hang out before and after the Wildcats play. The big screen televisions are everywhere and Bruce Weber's first team will give the fans plenty to cheer about.
14 - MAMA MIA
Who knew, but Orlando's in Lubbock, Texas is one of the best Italian restaurants in the Big 12. A postgame pizza is a hot ticket.
15 - LEGENDS & EXPERTS ON BIG MONDAY
Hall of Fame announcer Brent Musburger will again do play-by-play on the Big 12's Big Monday game on ESPN. Fran Fraschilla replaces Bob Knight as analyst and Holly Rowe will be on the sidelines. They know these teams inside and out.
16 - WOW FACTOR
Dave Armstrong from our Big 12 Network makes every game exciting. He's called games in the Big 12 from the beginning and before that in the Big 8. When Dave yells "Wowwwwww!" on the Big 12 Game of the Week it's often better than being there in person.
17 - THE KABONGO FACTOR
I can't wait to see Texas with Myck Kabongo back in the lineup. The talented guard has been practicing with his team while he serves a 23-game suspension and from all reports, he is looking ready to take a young team on his back in early February. Better late than never!
17+ - KANSAS CITY HERE WE COME
Kansas City and Sprint Center are the perfect city and venue to host the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship. The entertainment district across the street is an ideal backdrop. Throw in the college basketball Hall of Fame and the Big 12 postseason event is an experience you don't want to miss ..... I'll see you there!!
Here We Go Again ...
January 4, 2013 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network - @davearmstrong12
This is one of my favorite times, a new year and a chance for a fresh start. That certainly applies to my yearly resolution to eat healthier, but that's another story. As it pertains to College Basketball, the flip of the calendar into 2013 gives each team a new challenge. For the most part, non-conference action is in the rear-view mirror. We are now staring through the windshield of a new season. For the 17th year, the Big 12 begins conference play. For many teams, this is a chance for a fresh start, a new goal. For others, it's a chance to add to an already great year. Each season is broken down into three parts. Non-conference play, Conference action, and for many in the Big 12...March Madness. Much of the script is still to be written as we enter phase two of this season.
As we look at the start of Conference action, I'm reminded of the phrase, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." The Kansas Jayhawks have won or shared eight straight titles. Let me pause for just a moment to allow that to sink in. Eight straight championships in a conference as tough and as competitive as the Big 12 is truly amazing. Until someone knocks them off their perch, I see no reason to believe that Kansas is not the prohibitive favorite to win their ninth straight. There are certainly a few teams talented enough to beat the Jayhawks, but from what we've witnessed so far, it looks more and more like an insurmountable task. Kansas is once again loaded with talent despite losing two more players from last years' squad to the NBA. Jeff Withey is an All-America candidate and the best shot blocker in the nation. This team features four senior starters and one of the country's most exciting freshmen in Ben McLemore. Plus there's McDonald's All-American Perry Ellis coming off the bench. KU is back in the top 10, with only one loss. I dare say, there's no one in the country playing better than the Jayhawks right now. Since December, Kansas is beating opponents by more than 25 points per game. And that schedule includes Ohio State, Richmond and Colorado. It's a burgeoning trophy case in Lawrence, and I think KU needs to make room for another one, their ninth straight and 13th Conference championship in 17 years. Amazing!
Having said that, there are plenty of contenders. Oklahoma State is having a terrific season, despite a loss to Gonzaga earlier this week (Who hasn't lost to the Zags? They went 5-0 on their tour of the Big 12). The Cowboys have an exciting freshman in Marcus Smart to add to an already talented lineup. This is Travis Ford's best team, and big things are expected for this group.
Baylor has underachieved to this point. But don't go into hibernation on the Bears. This group is as talented and athletic as any in the Conference. Isaiah Austin is so gifted, Pierre Jackson can do it all at the point, and there's enough experience sprinkled with the kids to make a serious run. Baylor is joining the company of other great teams where they don't rebuild, they reload.
Kansas State is still getting acquainted with new head coach Bruce Weber. His motion offense is fun to watch when it works, and the Wildcats are starting to show signs of getting it. Their win over Florida was a bit of a surprise, and gives K-State fans hopes of what can be.
Iowa State had a nice win vs. BYU, but losses to Cincinnati, Iowa, and UNLV still leave some question marks. I'm a big believer in the Mayor Fred Hoiberg, and he has already proven to bring some of that hometown magic back to Hilton Coliseum, so don't sleep on the Cyclones.
The biggest head scratcher is Texas. The Longhorns clobbered North Carolina, but lost to Chaminade in Hawaii. However, that was a long time ago, and Rick Barnes has his team playing better. A loss to Michigan State was hard fought. Texas gets Myck Kabongo back in February, enough time for the Longhorns to make a run.
Oklahoma also fits into this question mark category. I saw them last month take apart Texas A&M in Oklahoma City. But then a loss to Stephen F. Austin was a surprise. I'll see the Sooners this weekend in Morgantown ... wondering which team will show up?
So let's talk about West Virginia. It's great to have Bob Huggins back in the Conference. This isn't his best team by any stretch of the imagination, but the guy's won more than 700 games. Somehow, he'll figure out a way to make life difficult for the other nine teams.
We welcome another new member, TCU. Unfortunately, the Horned Frogs are young, and injured. Not a good combination, but head coach Trent Johnson is working hard with his new team.
Texas Tech is also going through a transition with a slew of new players and a new coach, but Chris Walker has brought a lot of energy to his new position and hopes it translates to league play.
One of the themes we'll be following this year is the development of some extremely talented newcomers and freshmen. Nine of the top twenty scorers in the Big 12 are freshmen, sophomores or newcomers. Eleven of the top twenty rebounders fit into this category.
Conference play tips off on the Big 12 Network at 12:30 p.m. CT this Saturday when Oklahoma State travels to Manhattan to take on the Wildcats. I can't wait!