The Final Stage
March 28, 2012 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network - @davearmstrong12
Show of hands, how many of you really thought back in November that the Kansas Jayhawks would be in the Final Four? If you did, you were in the minority. Even Head Coach Bill Self had his doubts. Especially after KU lost to Davidson. Coach Self was quoted as saying, "No chemistry whatsoever. I mean, just bad." After that loss, the Final Four wasn't even on his radar. He thought more about just making the NCAA Tournament. That's why he was so elated when Kansas knocked off Ohio State at Allen Fieldhouse on the heels of that Davidson loss. Self thought back then that it was the signature win KU needed to improve their resume. From there, it just kept getting better and better. "The guys kind of woke up. This team has played as close to a ceiling as it possibly could," Self said recently.
The Jayhawks started the year with one returning starter, Tyshawn Taylor. They began with a recruiting class thinned by the NCAA Clearinghouse. They began with hope and not much else. But something happened along the way. Kansas got better. They got better as individuals and they certainly got better as a team.
Taylor was a turnover machine at the start of the year. Even getting booed on his home court. But as the season wore on, Tyshawn showed toughness that mirrors the personality of his coach. The senior point guard came back from knee surgery in days, not weeks. The jeers turned to cheers as he started to make plays while limiting his mistakes. The Jayhawks would be lost without him. Taylor has led this team to New Orleans.
Show of hands, how many of you thought that would happen back in November? In his game against North Carolina that propelled Kansas into the Final Four, Taylor went 10-of-14 on his 2-point attempts with six rebounds, five assists and five steals. He did continue his struggles from beyond the arc in Domes, but when told they would be playing in a dome in New Orleans, Tyshawn said, "Oh man!" But after everything else he's overcome, I have no doubt he will have a positive impact come Saturday night.
Thomas Robinson came back for his junior campaign like a man on a mission. With the weight of the world on his broad shoulders, Robinson has grown into the possible National Player of the Year in College Basketball. His story of overcoming adversity on his way to greatness will be one told thousands of times, and rightfully so. Thomas has grown up before our eyes. The man he has become away from the game is maybe the best part of the story. And this from a player that has routinely put up a double-double in almost every game. He brings an energy that is palpable. Quite a one-two punch.
Kansas is better because Jeff Withey is better. Because Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford are better. The bench is more productive. And then there is the intangible, toughness. Did you see the wins vs. Purdue and NC State? The Jayhawks won with defense and a not-to-be-denied desire to win.
There's a lot of talk about how Ohio State will be playing this game, unlike the KU win back in December, with their All-America center Jared Sullinger. True, but Kansas will be playing with a roster full of guys who are contributing much more than they did three months ago. And that brings us to Coach Self.
Everyone wants to say this is his best coaching job ever. I don't know, maybe it is. You can sure make that argument. But I'd like to know when he hasn't been good. The year after Kansas won their National Championship in 2008 and six of the players from that squad were drafted in the NBA, the Jayhawks won. Eight straight Big 12 Titles. Eight straight! Simply put, Bill Self is a winner. What this team has accomplished this year is just one more example of continued excellence.
Most are saying that by getting to the Final Four, this team has already overachieved from preseason predictions. While that may be true, I have a feeling that they are on a mission. As Coach Self says, "I don't think our guys are satisfied. I think they think this is our year. And I'm certainly not going to tell them differently." Neither am I. Good luck in New Orleans to the Jayhawks, the Big 12 is rooting hard for another Kansas National Championship.
Sweet 16 Preview
March 20, 2012 Reid Gettys, Big 12 Network
At last tally, my secretary (who alternates between picking teams by colors and mascots) is now beating me in the office pool. Thanks, Norfolk State! I ended up with 11 teams left out of the Sweet 16 and two of the ones that I got right were Baylor and Kansas. Although like most of you, I had Baylor facing off against No. 2 seed Duke and Kansas meeting No. 3 Georgetown. Ah, March Madness! Is there anything in world that beats these three weeks in March? Here is a quick preview of the upcoming games of our remaining two teams.
Baylor vs. Xavier
No matter the differences between this Baylor team and its Sweet 16 predecessor in 2010, the NCAA Tournament bracket parallels are inescapable going into Friday's South Region semifinal in Atlanta. Baylor will face Xavier, hoping for another repeat of 2010. Already, Baylor has beaten a 14 seed (South Dakota State) and an 11 (Colorado), just like 2010. And just like 2010, a 10 seed awaits, along with a powerhouse No. 1 seed in blue lurking on the other side of the bracket. But it's way too early to start thinking about Kentucky in the Georgia Dome for the regional final. If you are a "glass half full" kind of fan, you have to be ecstatic about how your Bears are playing without getting major numbers from your best player - Perry Jones III. If you are more of a pessimist, uh, would someone please find the Perry Jones that showed up at the Big 12 Championship? You need that guy! Back to the optimists, there is no one in the NCAA Tournament shooting the ball like Brady Heslip - he was spectacular against Colorado! Pierre Jackson struggled up until the team really needed him, and then as we have watched all year long, he exploded. If the Perry Jones that we last saw in Kansas City shows up this weekend, the Bears have as good of a shot at the Final Four as any of the 16 squads left playing!
To get a shot at Big Blue, Baylor will have to beat a tough, gritty Xavier team who is appearing in their fourth Sweet 16 in the last five years. I was in Greensboro and called both Xavier games this last weekend. The 10th-seeded Musketeers punched their ticket to a fourth regional semifinal after overcoming a defensive slugfest with Alabama and then beating 15th-seeded Lehigh, 70-58. Xavier crushed the Mountain Hawks' hopes of being the first 15-seed to advance to the Sweet 16 by shrugging off four 15-point deficits. XU has the ability to absolute smother you with their defense. From the end of the first half to midway through second, the Musketeers went on a 26-8 run and ultimately held Lehigh to 15 percent shooting after halftime. Xavier has an All-American caliber guard in Tu Holloway and a monster in the middle, Kenny Frease, who is coming off a career-high 25 points and 12 rebounds. Frease will be a match up challenge for the slender Bears Big 12 fans will be reminded of Big Country Bryant Reeves. Frease will be a Clydesdale to the Bears thoroughbreds! I anticipate that 6-7 Quincy Acy will spend a significant amount of time banging with the 7-foot Frease inside the paint. Frease is limited offensively (80 percent of his moves are left shoulder jump hooks), he is just so thick and physical. The flip side of that matchup is that Frease will have tremendous difficulty matching up with any of Baylor's frontline players. Xavier is a man-man defensive team and Baylor will drag him out on perimeter and make him help on on-the-ball-screens. I believe that the Frease against whomever he faces will determine the outcome of this game.
If you are asking, take the Bears!
Kansas vs. NC State
At this point, they don't have to be pretty, just win and advance! My overwhelming reaction to the Purdue game was, whew! Elijah Johnson's steal and layup with 23.3 seconds left gave the Jayhawks just their second lead of the game. Robbie Hummel finished with 26 points on 9-for-13 shooting; however, just four of those points came in the second half as KU rallied from a 12-point deficit behind 18 points from Johnson.
Three double-digit seeds are left in the Sweet 16 and two of them (Ohio and NC State) are in the Midwest. Eleven months ago, NCSU was a program without a coach, ridiculed by the national media as the little brother to national powers North Carolina and Duke and as a job no one wanted, except Mark Gottfried. Gottfried is the first NC State coach since Jim Valvano to win 24 games in a season, and under the umbrella of complete disclosure....is one of my close friends. Mark and I shared a condo in San Diego and were teammates with Athletes in Action for a couple of years. I am very proud of him! He took a team that went 15-16 a year ago and in complete disarray and has led them into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005 and only the second time since 1989. Anyone that witnessed the heartfelt outpouring of emotion from CJ Leslie directed at his new head coach during a press conference last weekend, will know that NC State fans have a feeling of destiny to meet to UNC with a Final Four on the line.
As good as they have been the last three weeks; the Wolfpack's run will end with Jayhawks. I continue to chuckle at the suggestion that KU is not deep enough to make a run at the National Championship. What a bunch of nonsense! Depth in the NCAA Tournament is way overrated! NC State gets 82 percent of its scoring from its starters. KU's starting five are as talented as any team in America and more talented than NC State. For the Wolfpack, C.J. Leslie has been the star for last 10 games averaging 18 points and seven rebounds. In Lawrence, they call those numbers a bad game for T-Rob! I believe that Leslie will have a tremendous struggle matching up with either Thomas Robinson and/or Jeff Withey on both ends of the floor. That will be key, because if you don't have to help down on Leslie, Elijah Johnson can stay in front of NC State's point guard Lorenzo Brown (who has been spectacular in the last two outings averaging 15 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists) and stay out on Scott Wood (when Wood has 4 or more 3-pointers, NCSU is 10-0).
I think that Kansas wins this game, and wins it big! Remove Kendall Marshall from UNC and Kansas will be playing the winner of Baylor and Kentucky for the National Championship!
Congratulations to Thomas Robinson for being named one of the four finalists by the Atlanta Tipoff Club for the Naismith Player of the Year. The other three include Michigan State senior Draymond Green; Creighton sophomore Doug McDermott and Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. Michigan State, Creighton and surprisingly, Kentucky have never had a Naismith winner. If Robinson were to win the award, he would join Danny Manning (1988) as the only players in Kansas history to win the trophy.
NCAA Six Pack The Big 12 Attacks The Bracket
March 12, 2012 Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network - @MitchHolthus
The Big 12 has had a great men's basketball year. The league made an impression with the NCAA Selection Committee as six Big 12 teams have made the NCAA field. Here is a team by team analysis as the Big Dance begins!
Bill Self did a remarkable job with a thin Jayhawk roster. He now takes the No. 2 seed into the Midwest Region. I still think the Jayhawks deserved a top seed even after their loss to Baylor in Kansas City. Thomas Robinson has received most of the talk this year, but Tyshawn Taylor took this team over after February 1. Jeff Withey has become a huge factor for KU and is a tough match-up for any NCAA opponent. Also overlooked is Self's ability to get the Jayhawks to play outstanding perimeter defense anchored by Elijah Johnson.
However, KU has a TOUGH first round game in under-seeded No. 15 Detroit. This might be the committee's biggest mistake in under-seeding the Titans. Detroit has an NBA prospect in Ray McCallum Jr. (the coach's son). The Horizon League Tournament champion also features an athletic squad led by 6'7" Chase Simon and 6'10" senior Eli Holman and "bouncy" Doug Anderson. The Titans won 13 of their last 15 games since Martin Luther King Day and crushed Valpo in the Horizon final. KU will have to play well to win and then will face a challenge in the next round with either Purdue or Saint Mary's.
Missouri's senior class deserves big kudos for a great year and a Big 12 Championship title in Kansas City. Mizzou might be the best passing team in the nation and when they get flowing in their offense they are fun to watch. Marcus Denmon and Kim English have taken turns exploding offensively and Michael Dixon, Phil Pressey and Ricardo Ratliffe are an extreme challenge to any NCAA opponent.
Missouri is also a No. 2 seed, but in the West Region. Yet, the Tigers first round draw Norfolk State is not nearly as tough as Detroit. The rest of the bracket is nasty, however. The committee loaded the West with dangerous teams. Mizzou's second round game is scary with Virginia and super-senior Mike Scott or Florida with former Mizzou recruit Bradley Beal from St. Louis.
Baylor was impressive in Kansas City. Their play in KC was like the effort they showed in November and December when they built one of the top RPI's in the nation. Perry Jones III was good, but the "x" factor is Brady Heslip. When Heslip gets open looks he knocks down shots and was a big producer in November and December. He averaged 14 points in Kansas City. Quincy Acy is a holdover from the Bears Elite Eight run two years ago and was very good back then (3 double-figure scoring NCAA games in 2010).
The Bears are a No. 3 seed in the South Region. South Dakota State is the first opponent and features high scoring guard Nate Wolters. Baylor has rediscovered its man-to-man defense and that should present big problems for the Jackrabbits. The Bears can make a run in their bracket if they play with the purpose and intensity that they exhibited in Kansas City.
Fred Hoiberg molded the Cyclones into an NCAA team behind Royce White. White might be the toughest matchup in the tournament as a 6'7", 270-pound point-forward. Iowa State's ability to make 3-point shots with four different players is also a weapon. In addition, Chris Babb turned into one of the Big 12's best defenders during the last 70 days of the season.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Iowa State is the No. 8 seed in the rock-hard South region. The Cyclones have drawn UConn who have a roster full of NBA prospects like Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier. Kentucky awaits the winner of the ISU-Connecticut game .... Yikes!
Frank Martin's Wildcats have been the toughest team to track in the Big 12. Which 'Cats team will show up in the NCAA Tournament? The team that swept Missouri and beat Baylor in Waco? Or, the team that was swept by Oklahoma? Will Spradling has to break out of his slump for the 'Cats to make a run and Angel Rodriquez must handle late game situations consistently.
Kansas State is a No. 8 seed in the easiest bracket in the field - the East Region. K-State faces former Big 12 coach Larry Eustachy and the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles from Conference USA. USM's best player is Kansas City native Neil Watson, a tough 5'11" guard who was the C-USA Newcomer of the Year. If K-State can get by USM, many give them a shot to upset #1 Syracuse.
Rick Barnes has his Longhorns in the NCAA tournament for the 14th consecutive year. Gaining the bid wasn't easy. Barnes' Horns probably sealed it with a first round win over Iowa State in Kansas City. Yet, it's apparent that the Longhorns still were one of the last teams selected in this year's field. UT's young players were better down the stretch, particularly Sheldon McClellan up front. J'Covan Brown is one of the top players in the entire NCAA Tournament.
UT is the No. 11 seed in the East Region and will play resilient Cincinnati in the first round. Bearcat head coach Mick Cronin did an admirable job in handling the nasty on-floor fight earlier in the year with arch-rival Xavier, a situation that could have derailed the UC season. Instead, the Bearcats were 9-3 after February 1 and benefited from the Big East's unbalanced schedule by handling the bottom teams of the league. Still, UC is a threat on the perimeter with Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon.
There you go....you can now cheer on the Big 12 every step of the way in the NCAA Tournament with your own "six-pack". It has been another stellar year of men's basketball in the Big 12.
March 8, 2012 Doug Bell, Big 12 Network
TCU Director of Athletics Chris Del Conte was a live guest on our Studio 66 show in between games on Wednesday. His enthusiasm was infectious, and he got me very excited about the new look Big 12 with his Horned Frogs program and West Virginia coming on board for next year. We talked on camera for a live segment and then again off, and I told him he needed to stay for Thursday's quarterfinals to experience what I thought would be one of the most memorable days in the history of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship ! Unfortunately, he has to head to Las Vegas to watch TCU in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West conference tourney. He agreed that I definitely had the best seat in the house, and he'll be watching on television.
I will be perched on our set, watching all the action and before it all begins I get to sit in on production meetings with Hall of Famers Bob Knight, Brent Musburger, and our Big 12 Network team of Dave Armstrong, Reid Gettys, and Bryndon Manzer. I love sitting back and listening to these guys break down what will be the key match ups of the day.
It all starts at 11:30 when Baylor meets K-State in a game that will get the juices flowing right from the start. It's the length and athleticism of the Bears, with all their top 100 recruits against the blue collar guys from Manhattan. I had a chance to talk with Wildcats head coach Frank Martin in the lobby of our hotel yesterday and then watched the 'Cats work out at Sprint Center on Wednesday morning. This is a team that is playing with great intensity and a few weeks ago they re-discovered the offense that was lost somewhere after the first of the year. Rodney McGruder is one heck of all-around performer and he is clearly the heart-and-soul of this team. When they upset Baylor in Waco three weeks ago, they controlled the boards, choked off penetration from the Baylor backcourt and generally played with more passion in the final minutes. BU will try and return the favor, and the Bears certainly have the talent to do it. But playing at the Sprint Center will be like playing in Manhattan with all the purple-clad fans there, and the Wildcats will be feeling right at home.
Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy stopped by to talk with us at Studio 66 after the Aggies beat Oklahoma in the opening round on Wednesday night. It has been a tough season for the first year head coach but last night's win had him smiling from ear to ear. They had put together one of their best defensive efforts of the season in the victory, and he talked confidently about how his team played Kansas close in two losses during the regular season. A&M does have the size to match up with Kansas, and health-wise, they are nearly at 100 percent. The big problem is that they are one of the worst shooting teams in the Big 12 and missed shots lead to fast break point for Tyshawn Taylor and company. When KU starts to roll, the Sprint Center starts to rock and roll, and opposing teams can't hear themselves think.
Missouri, making its final appearance in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship, will take on Oklahoma State shortly after dinner. Because of their low roster numbers, the hobbled Cowboys installed a new zone defense for their opening win against Texas Tech on Wednesday. At times it worked pretty well, but the Red Raiders are no Missouri. The OSU team that beat Missouri during the regular season in Stillwater is not the same team now. Keiton Page is playing the best basketball of his life, but that won't be enough to slow down a Mizzou squad that is playing for a potential top seed in the NCAA Tourney. As Norm Stewart used to always say, "this is Kansas City, Miss-ur-ah". Tiger fans are here for nostalgia and to leave there mark and they will be heard!
Talk about a nightcap - Iowa State rolls into KC with thousands of loyal fans excited to be back in the saddle against a Texas team that is the last squad currently listed in Joe Lunardi's NCAA field of 68. The Longhorns need a win to solidify their resume and earn a 14th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tourney. Rick Barnes refuses to put any added pressure on his young team, but does hope to pressure Iowa State's 3-point shooters. The Cyclones have been living and dying with the long ball all season and there style won't change. Again, I think the Sprint Center will be Hilton Coliseum West, and the crowd noise and experience of a veteran Iowa State team will roll into the semifinals.
West Virginia athletics director Oliver Luck will be on our Studio 66 show on Thursday when he comes from the Big East Tournament in New York to visit and shake hands in his new league. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Big 12 will have a new look in a few months, but for Thursday, this will be a mixture of young and old. All who will be in the house, or watching at their house, will be treated to one of the best days in the history of the championship!
Kansas City, Here I Come!
March 6, 2012 Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network
I'm sure you have had a tune of a song get stuck in your head. You know how sometimes it might be for a few minutes? Sometimes it might be a couple of hours. Every once in a while there's that one song that can even carry over from one day to the next. During the same week early in March, each and every year this happens to me as I make my way to KC for the Big 12 Basketball Championship.
"Going to Kansas City........Kansas City, Here I Come!" With confidence and anticipation, Wilbert Harrison repeats this verse in his 1959 classic version of "Kansas City"! For me it's like former Yankee great Yogi Berra once said, "It's Dιjΰ vu all over again!"
With excitement and anticipation I always look forward to my favorite four days of Big 12 basketball. I was fortunate as a player to participate in two Big 8 Tournaments years ago in Kemper Arena. In fact, including those two trips as player, I have attended 17 of the last 20 Big 8/Big 12 Championships as a player, fan, or analyst.
As we look ahead to this year's 2012 Big 12 Championship, it promises to be just as intense and exciting as ever. Wednesday night's games feature No. 8 seed Oklahoma verses No. 9 Texas A&M followed by No. 7 Oklahoma State facing No. 10 Texas Tech. Let's take a look at these two matchups a little bit closer and let's get this Championship started! "Kansas City, Here We Come!"
Oklahoma vs. Texas A&M
New scouting reports on each of these opponents are not necessary as OU and A&M played just four days ago in Norman. Only minor tweaks will most likely be made by Lon Kruger or Billy Kennedy as both these teams know each other well after splitting contests during the regular season with the home team winning each time. The Aggies won by six points in overtime on January 21 in College Station, while the Sooners won by just three this past Saturday. These two ballclubs are very evenly matched and both were a defensive stop or two away from winning or losing each game.
For Texas A&M, their biggest challenge might be finding a defensive answer for OU's Romero Osby as he had a career-high 24 points on Saturday and has shot a combined 19-of-25 (.760) from the field in the two meetings. Lon Kruger and his staff have done a great job of getting Osby consistent touches in games as of late and athletically. Gifted sophomore Cameron Clark has been more aggressive in recent games. He had nine points and nine boards against the Aggies Saturday. The Sooners will need more of that out of him to win this rubber match.
A&M, however, has done a good job defensively on sharp-shooting Steven Pledger, limiting him to just 25 points on 24 shots. Also, sometimes under-utilized Aggie big-man David Loubeau has been productive against Oklahoma with 16 and 15 points, respectively. They need to continue to get him the ball and put pressure on OU's interior.
Oklahoma State vs. Texas Tech
Two of Oklahoma State's seven conference wins have come at the Red Raiders expense. Like other teams in this league, they were smart to get wins now because Billy Gillispie's program will progress each year moving forward and the wins will be much tougher.
Keiton Page of Oklahoma State has been on a tear lately averaging 27 points over his last five games. However, he must continue to produce in that manner as OSU's injury woes have continued to pile up. Le'Bryan Nash and Phillip Jurick have been added to the M*A*S*H unit in Stillwater and that could help open up an opportunity for a Texas Tech upset.
Although the Red Raiders were swept in the season series, they did out rebound OSU in both games. That was also when both Nash and Jurick were available, two of the Cowboy's best rebounders. The Cowboys must find a way to hold their own on the boards and try to produce some points off turnovers and take advantage of a Tech team that turns it over 17 times a game.
March 2, 2012 Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network - @davearmstrong12
John Mayer had a popular song last year entitled, "Clarity." That's an apt description of what we now have in the Big 12 with the upcoming Phillips 66 Men's Basketball Championship right around the corner.
Four of the 10 seeds are set in stone, and the other six will be decided this Saturday. In the case of Oklahoma and Texas A&M, the only thing up for grabs is which school will be eighth and which will be ninth. The Sooners and the Aggies meet this weekend and then again on day one in Kansas City. We also know that Oklahoma State, the No. 7 seed, will face Texas Tech, the No. 10 seed. A couple of other things we know for sure, Kansas is No. 1 .... more on the Jayhawks in a moment. Missouri wrapped up the second seed with its victory over Iowa State this week.
Still to be decided are seeds three through six. The Cyclones and the Baylor Bears will battle in Ames to see which team will be the third seed, and which will finish at No. 4. It's a little more complicated with Kansas State and Texas. If they both win their games on Saturday, Texas would be the fifth seed by way of a tiebreaker. If they both lose, Kansas State is fifth. If one wins, and one loses, the team that wins is fifth and the other sixth. Did I say clarity? Well that's the best we can do going into the final weekend, and that's one more thing that is great about the Big 12. The competition is fierce, and it always goes down to the last day. I wouldn't want it any other way.
When the Conference season began, I witnessed Kansas handling the Wildcats of Kansas State. I wrote that week that even though the calendar may have flipped to 2012, the road to the Big 12 title still traveled through Lawrence. I received a little flak for that prediction. But at the end of the day, KU indeed did triumph yet again. It is their eighth straight Big 12 regular-season title and 12th in 16 years of the Big 12. That's a record to admire. It's unique in this day and age. To so dominate a power conference like the Big 12 is a remarkable achievement. Bill Self, his staff, and his revolving roster of talented players are to be applauded and admired. Not just here in the Midwest, but throughout all of college basketball. With the popularity of the NCAA Tournament, I don't think we put enough value on Conference Championships. Those banners hang proudly at Allen Fieldhouse - and they should. Congratulations, Jayhawks! Well played.
I did mention the NCAA Tournament, and a few words about that as the calendar has flipped to March. Kansas appears to be in good position to be a No. 1 seed. Missouri is a lock for a No. 2 seed, with a shot at the top line. Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas State have done more than enough work to have their ticket punched. Texas came back this week with two important wins. After trailing Texas Tech by six in overtime last Saturday in Lubbock, I witnessed the Longhorns closing the game on a 10-0 run to pull out the victory. And then, after trailing for most of the night against the Sooners, Texas came storming back in the closing moments to beat Oklahoma. That gives Rick Barnes young, young squad nine Conference wins. In my opinion, they have done enough to earn their way into the NCAA field.
So that means six out of 10 teams will be dancing. That's great representation from a Conference that was supposed to be "down" this year. I also think several of the schools from the Big 12 have a great chance to make a deep run. Buckle up; it should be a great ride!
Thomas Robinson: National Player of the Year
February 28, 2012 Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network - @Stephen_speaks
Since the beginning of the 2011-12 season, I have felt that Thomas Robinson was a front-runner for the National Player of the Year awards. Now that the 2012 season is almost over, and the race is almost over, I feel even more strongly that Thomas Robinson should be the 2012 National Player of the Year. As a former player who played with emotion, I realize that I tend to let emotion rule my world, so I decided to look behind the numbers and investigate if they backed up what my eyes saw.
It is interesting to note that Kansas has never had an Associated Press National Player of the Year. Wilt Chamberlain and Clyde Lovellette both played before 1961, which is when the Associated Press honor started. When Danny Manning won the Naismith and Wooden Awards, Hershey Hawkins won the AP player accolade.
If you look at the various prognosticators, who the eventual winner will be is between Anthony Davis of Kentucky and Thomas Robinson of Kansas. If you look at http://kenpom.com/kpoy.php, a statistical ratings service used by many of my colleagues at ESPN, he has Thomas Robinson as No. 1, Jared Sullinger No. 3 and Anthony Davis No. 4. Comparing players and their importance to teams is one of the more difficult things to do in any sport and is often akin to comparing apples to oranges, but someone has to do it.
If you look at the numbers that Robinson is putting up this year, they look pretty respectable at 17.8 points and 11.9 rebounds per game. When you consider that the only other Jayhawks to accomplish those numbers are Wilt Chamberlain and Clyde Lovellette, then they look ... ummm ... REALLY respectable. When you look even further inside the numbers and see that the last three major conference players to average 17.0 points per game and 12.0 rebounds per game were Blake Griffin, Michael Beasley and Tim Duncan; those really respectable numbers turn into OMG numbers.
When I think of a Player of the Year candidate, I think of someone that affects the game on both ends of the floor. Robinson is second in the nation with 21 double-doubles and also has efforts such as the late-game performance in the miraculous comeback versus Missouri in Lawrence. Robinson boasts eight consecutive double-doubles. While everyone accepts Anthony Davis as the best shot-blocker in the country, Thomas Robinson should really be considered the best rebounder in the country as he has the highest defensive rebounding percentage in the country at 32.3 percent.
Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the adversity that Thomas Robinson has repeatedly overcome on the court, but most importantly, off the court. Everyone by now knows the heart-wrenching story of how Robinson had to grow up overnight when he lost both of his maternal grandparents and his mother in the same month. It is inspiring how he has handled his adversity while being there for his 8-year old sister, Jayla. Not only to me, but to anyone who hears his story. So of course, I root for a player like that, and of course, I want him to be successful.
Regardless whether or not Thomas Robinson wins the deserved honor as Associated Press National Player of the Year, he is already my Person of the Year.
The Envelope Please
February 24, 2012 Brad Sham, Big 12 Network
Ah, finally, it's that time of year. A week left in the regular season. Tournament seeds to be settled, NCAA and NIT berths to be earned. Hopes run high.
Yeah, that too. But gang: after the weekend's games, it's Oscar night! It's the culmination of award season. So we'll take the opportunity to hand out some subjective personal recognition with thanks to all 10 teams for a season well done.
Speaking of thanks, that's where the awards always start. So I'd like to thank my mom for watching all our games. I'd like to thank the Big 12 office and (seriously) a great group of media relations and communications professionals at the league schools who make our jobs easier. And I'd especially like to thank Reid, Doug, Stephen, Mitch, Dave, Rich, Bryndon and Chad for not writing this column before I could get to it. We don't rehearse this stuff, folks.
So permit me to start with a category I'm making up -
Best Performance By A Player No One Talks About
My runner-up is Michael Cobbins, the freshman post at Oklahoma State. I know he's still green and rough around some edges, but every time I watch the Cowboys he seems to be grabbing a rebound or blocking a shot, and he plays with as much intensity as anyone not named Quincy Acy. This award, however, goes to Romero Osby, who one suspects would be more talked about if Oklahoma had better results. Coach Lon Kruger has to be happy with the Mississippi State transfer he inherited. Osby goes into the weekend 10th in the league in scoring and tied for eighth in rebounding for conference games. He will knock down a 3-pointer and block a shot and he's having a better year than a lot of folks have noticed.
Best Performance By A Home Crowd, Season
One of the closest races. The folks in Columbia have responded as you'd hope to one of the best seasons Missouri has ever had. It's an honor to do a game in Ames, because Iowa State fans have always appreciated their team when it wasn't doing well. This year, they've rewarded the Cyclones' play by taking it up a notch. You know you're in a partisan place when you go to Manhattan. And how can you not tip the cap to the fans in Waco, where they had never had an advance home sellout for the men or women's teams before this year. The men are at four and counting going into the Saturday game with Oklahoma. But game in and game out, year in and year out, the award goes to KU fans in Lawrence. Every game at Allen is special.
Newcomer of the Year
As we all know, this has to be differentiated from Freshman of the Year. This is for the best new player who is not a freshman, and this is a two-man race. The early favorite was Royce White, the Iowa State point forward who wins Most Unique Player. You don't see many 6-7 players who are not only the teams' best rebounder but also the best ball-handler, and not because there's not a good point guard option. No one I know has seen a player quite like him. But the award must go to Pierre "Action" Jackson. Both players have been instrumental on good teams, but Jackson has been transformative for a Baylor team that will be a high seed in the NCAAs. The Bears are not the same team without him.
Freshman of the Year
There are some good ones. We may look back sometime soon and wonder how there were better freshmen than Oklahoma State's Le'Bryan Nash or Baylor's Quincy Miller. But this is for current performance, not potential. The award goes to Texas point guard Myck Kabongo, who has run the point all year and occasionally been breathtaking. But if the season were a month longer instead of a week, Kansas State point guard Angel Rodriguez might catch him.
Player of the Year
It's pretty hard not to give this to Kansas' Thomas Robinson, so I will. When he's on, he's the most dynamic player in the league and maybe in the country. But Pierre Jackson is a close second, and if the award were MVP, it would be Jackson. Unless it was Mizzou's Marcus Denmon.
Coach of the Year
Pretty much impossible for this not to be Missouri's Frank Haith. No one saw this Tiger season coming, including Haith probably. So congratulations, coach. But the honorable mentions are just as impressive. Fred Hoiberg has been tremendous at Iowa State, from putting the team together to bringing the Cyclones back to the NCAAs after a seven-year absence. Bill Self should not be overlooked just because he coaches a perennial powerhouse. He's one of the biggest reasons Kansas IS a perennial powerhouse and he's been challenged this year. And few teams have improved as much over the season as Kansas State, and Frank Martin deserves a tip of the cap.
There they are, folks. One man's opinion, and remember, it's an honor to be nominated.
I Believe In The Underdog
February 21, 2012 Reid Gettys, Big 12 Network
Driving home from a high school game this evening, my wife, daughter and I were jamming to the song "I Believe in the Underdog" by The Lost Trailers. Great song and one of those tunes that sticks in your mind long after you have turned the radio off. The reality is, no one cheers for Goliath - we all love the underdog. Keiton Paige has been a star in our Conference for so long, that sometimes you forget what an incredible underdog he has been during his career in Stillwater.
Let me give you a hypothetical; suppose you were sitting in an airport with your buddy and the Cowboys walked by you on their way to catch a flight. Immediately your friend says, "let's choose teams and I get to go first." Based upon physical appearances, I am not sure what "round" he would be drafted, but there is a good chance that a couple of Travis Ford's managers would get selected before someone got around to choosing Keiton for his team.....unless your buddy happens to be Rick Barnes!
Don't tell Dave Armstrong that I am stealing his tag line, but WOW!! Did you see the box score from the game on Saturday? A new career-high 40 points, 8-of-14 from the field, 4-of-8 from 3-point range and 20-of-20 from the free-throw line! Again I say, WOW! Keiton's 27 points in the first half were the second-most ever in a half by a Big 12 player against a league opponent (Michael Beasley once scored 28 in a half against Baylor back in 2008). His perfect (20-for-20) shooting from the line is the most attempts without a miss in the history of the Big 12. Keiton became only the 10th player in NCAA Division I history to be perfect on 20 or more free-throw attempts in a game. The numbers are so overwhelming, it almost makes his 23 points against the No. 3 team in the country (Missouri) last Wednesday seem pedestrian. For the week, Keiton averaged 32 points on 53 percent shooting - making him the easy choice for the Big 12 Player of the Week. Surprisingly, it was his first career Player of the Week award.
Keiton Paige will finish his career as one of the best shooters and top scorers in Oklahoma State history. His name will be splattered all over the record books when this season comes to an end. He has become one of those kids for whom during a broadcast, you run out of adjectives and superlatives! He has been performing at such a high level for so long; it is hard to imagine his collegiate career is coming to an end.
While others will remember Keiton for his lightning quick release, his perpetual movement and bulldog tough tenaciousness, what I will remember is his coach, Travis Ford sitting in the locker room in Lawrence, Kansas talking about his senior shooting guard. Before the KU game, Travis told Armstrong and me that Keiton had developed into the "greatest leader that I have ever coached." Travis described that for the first several years, Keiton led by example with his unparalleled work ethic. With a team as young as the Cowboys are this year, leading by example is great, but Travis needed more. He needed someone to become his voice on the floor; constantly talking, knowing when to encourage, when to push and above all else, demanding accountability and responsibility from his young teammates on the floor. Keiton has become that "Voice". Give me a choice of my name in the record books with impressive statistics...or a coach praising my leadership and describing me the way that Travis Ford describes Keiton, I'll choose my coach's praises every time.
I am off to work the last Bedlam game of Keiton Paige's career. While I never have a rooting interest in a Big 12 game, I will certainly be humming a tune in my mind during the game, because I too believe in the underdog!
Good RPIs The Gift That Keeps On Giving
February 17, 2012 Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network - @MitchHolthus
It is mid-February, the time when EVERY college basketball conference makes its plea for selection of its member schools into the NCAA tournament.
This year, I will argue that six teams from the Big 12 should be selected and I will take it to the Supreme Court if need be.
If there is one understated fact about Big 12 basketball, it is that the league has been a top three-rated conference according to RPI ranking for the past FIVE years. This year the Big 12 is ranked third in the RPI once again and the ranking reflects a change in scheduling by conference schools.
Big 12 basketball fans are learning that college basketball begins in mid-November and not when the college football bowl season is over. Big 12 basketball programs have learned their lesson and are scheduling much better games in November and December to build their postseason resume. The NCAA Basketball Selection Committee has made it clear that loading up on "guarantee" games at home versus traditionally low RPI teams is not sufficient for NCAA tournament inclusion.
One great avenue for scheduling good RPI teams in both "Power Six" and non-power conferences are the multi-team neutral court tournaments or classics. This year, the Big 12 is proving that playing and winning games in these events helps build strong resumes that the NCAA Selection Committee can't ignore.
The two best examples are Baylor and Kansas State. The Bears may have fallen twice to Kansas and Missouri, but BU's non-conference schedule has helped produce a single digit RPI rating for much of the year. The Bears participated in the Las Vegas Invitational and were able to beat high RPI teams - St. Mary's (Calif.) (RPI: 31) and West Virginia (42). Also, Baylor won at BYU (45) and at Northwestern (44) and recorded a victory at the Ferrell Center versus San Diego State (27).
K-State, left out of the 2009 NCAA Tournament despite finishing fourth in the Big 12, has played a strong non-conference schedule in the three years since being excluded from the "Big Dance".
This year, the Wildcats won the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic by beating high-RPI entrant Long Beach State (41). Moreover, Frank Martin's team topped Alabama (35) at Sprint Center and narrowly lost a neutral site game in overtime to West Virginia.
Some of the other "exempt" events that Big 12 schools have participated in during November and December include the Old Spice Classic in Anaheim and the Puerto Rico Tipoff. In addition, Kansas played Long Beach State and Davidson and traditional powers Duke, Kentucky and Georgetown. Texas dropped a tough game at North Carolina (6), but also beat high RPI team Temple (18) in the non-conference.
The case is clear and the facts cannot be ignored. The Big 12 has a high RPI because they have played traditionally high RPI teams and beaten them. It's why the league has shown that over the past five years beating such teams is the "gift that keeps on giving".
Looking Up In Lubbock
February 14, 2012 - Doug Bell, Big 12 Network
I talked to Billy Gillispie a few weeks ago in Lubbock and the Texas Tech head coach pointed out right after he shook my hand and looked me in the eye - "We knew what we were getting into, when we took the job." That's not to say Gillispie isn't excited about being in Lubbock, quite the contrary, he's thrilled. He is not only close to home (he was born in Abilene, about 160 miles from Lubbock and his Dad still lives there), but he's doing what he does best, rebuilding a down-trodden program. He rebuilt UTEP in two short seasons and the job he did at Texas A&M leading the Aggies to the Sweet Sixteen in 2007 was truly remarkable.
The difference in those jobs and the one he has now, is that time and life's funny bounces has made the coaching vagabond a content individual. "I've done that other deal where you build something up and you have great success and you're looking for greener pastures. I don't think there are greener pastures than this place, especially for me."
Gillispie, who goes by "Billy Clyde" to his close friends in the coaching business (Clyde is his Dad's name) is selling Texas Tech as a progressive university, with all sorts of new construction both on and off campus, as opposed to the isolated school in West Texas. Like at some of his other stops, he's convincing recruits they can be part of a rags-to-riches story. His coaching career and life could certainly make for a great country western song. He says that all the things that have happened to him over the last few years has convinced him that Texas Tech is the best place he could be. He has no regrets about what transpired at Kentucky and he's glad to be back in his home state. He sharpened his spurs coaching high school ball in Texas, and because of his great relationship with the prep coaches in the state, it's only a matter of time until he starts attracting top players to Texas Tech.
Those who come had better be prepared to work extremely hard and regardless of your credentials, learn to take constructive criticism from their head coach. The day I was there, freshman sensation Jordan Tolbert was doing more watching at practice than actually playing. I was told that Tolbert is still learning how to practice the right way, which means bringing an intense, chip on your shoulder attitude, even to the shootaround on game day. One of Gillispie's rules, if you don't have good practice time, you won't see much game time. That night against Oklahoma State, Tolbert played a season-low six minutes. Lesson taught and lesson learned.
Looking at the standings in the Big 12, Kansas is again at the top, with Texas Tech bringing up the rear. But believe it or not, there are similarities between the two programs. Billy Gillispie was an assistant for Bill Self at Tulsa and the two remain close friends. Both men emphasize defense, controlling tempo, and playing with intensity on every possession. Both men can recruit top talent.
Gillispie likes his recruiting class for next season, but admits he's still two more classes away from contending with the upper half of the Big 12. The 51-year old doesn't seem worried. He's exactly where he wants to be - coaching hoops, sleeping three-to-four hours a night, breaking down tape, talking to high school coaches on the phone and rebuilding the Red Raiders program. He's been giving speeches and meeting with basketball fans around the area ever since he took the job, which is something he wasn't known for at some of his other coaching stops. He started a Red Raiders golf tournament for boosters, which had never been done before at Texas Tech. He has a goal to fill up the beautiful United Spirit Arena on a nightly basis. He knows that aside from marketing, winning will sell thousands of tickets. Billy Gillispie was meant to coach in Lubbock, where things are looking up!
A Sound Inspiration
February 10, 2012 Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network
There is a player in the Big 12 this year that has been an inspiration to his teammates, his coach, and an ever-growing number of fans - including yours truly. He's not the best player in the league. He won't garner any postseason awards. But he has already left an indelible impression on everyone he has ever met and all who have seen him play. His name is Luke Adams. He's a freshman on the last-place Texas Tech Red Raiders men's basketball team. He's only 5'9" and averages less than four points. He won't win freshman of the year. But he's winning new fans everyday. I'm one of them. Luke was born deaf. He plays Division I basketball. He plays with a hearing aid in his left ear and a cochlear implant in his right. That, in and of itself, is a huge accomplishment. But that's only part of the story.
Luke Adams meets with a young K-State fan who also has a cochlear implant prior to Tuesday's game in Manhattan.
You can't fake that kind of enthusiasm. And by the way, the reference to boxing is also part of the story. Luke's grandfather, Tom, was a five-time Texas Golden Gloves champion. His dad, Mark, is a former boxer and basketball player. Mark Adams is currently the head basketball coach at Howard College in Big Spring, Texas. The basketball part of Luke's life, and most likely his toughness, comes from his father. Luke says, "My parents never made my deafness a handicap. They never treated me special. They never let me use that as any excuse." It's impossible not to admire this kid.
I've been drawn to this story for a personal reason as well. My dad has cochlear implants in both ears. He had his hearing restored at the ripe old age of 80. My dad's hearing started to worsen as he reached his fifties. It got so bad in his 70's that there was no hearing aid that would help. My family started to look into sign language as a way to communicate with him. My dad was drifting away. It was getting impossible to have a normal conversation. So he bravely underwent the procedure to regain his ability to hear. He says he not only got his hearing back, he got his life back. So did we.
Luke Adams got his implant when he was in the fifth grade. At first he didn't like it. "It took a few adjustments, but once they got the right settings, my hearing improved drastically." As I mentioned, Luke was born deaf. Only his parents didn't know it. He was so adept at reading lips; he learned to talk like any other non hearing-impaired child. It wasn't until he was two or three that his parents suspected that he might have trouble with his ability to hear.
To Coach Gillispie, "this story is as good as there is in college basketball. And not just because Luke's hearing-impaired, but because he's a really good player too." Luke is starting to realize that his story can be helpful to others. He's making new friends on Facebook every day. Just the other day in Manhattan, on an afternoon before Texas Tech met Kansas State, Luke met with a young boy who is getting ready for cochlear implant surgery. His message is simple, "Have faith, things will work out. " By the way, Luke scored 15 points against the Wildcats. I'd say things are working out just fine.
More Shots = More Wins
February 7, 2012 Rich Zvosec, Big 12 Network - @CoachZZ
A quick look at the top four teams in the Big 12 will show you that they follow the philosophy of "If I take more shots than my opponent, then I will win more games." I didn't say make more shots, but rather take more shots. In other words create more possessions. This sounds simple in practice; however, it takes a maximum amount of attention to detail and hyper-focus on two areas.
There are two ways to get more shots than your opponent. The first is by having fewer turnovers. As an old coach once told me - "You can't shoot if you ain't got it." The other way is to get more offensive rebounds. Both areas are effort areas. That means it is not about talent, but rather about hustle and a relentless pursuit of perfection. Gather in every missed shot and don't make any careless plays with the ball.
A quick look at the box scores from the last 10 games played shows that the team that had fewer turnovers chalked up eight wins with only one loss (one game was even on turnovers). Now let's take a closer look at the top four teams in the league.
|Team||Fewer Turnovers||More Turnovers|
Additionally, three of the top four teams are ranked in the top four in the league for fewest turnovers per game. Missouri leads the Big 12 with the fewest turnovers per game.
Individually, Phil Pressey (Missouri) is first in the Conference in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.23. Pierre Jackson (Baylor) is second and Tyshawn Taylor (Kansas) ranks third. Royce White, the point forward for Iowa State, is a respectable 1.08.
As far as offensive rebounding, Baylor is recording almost 12 per game, which is third in the league. Missouri is fourth and Kansas is fifth.
When you factor in both offensive rebounds and fewer turnovers you can see that Missouri has taken 194 more shots than their opponents. Iowa State is at 99, Kansas at 73 and Baylor has taken 35 more shots than their foes.
One final factor you must consider when analyzing the numbers on a score sheet are the "silent turnovers" a team has in a game. Silent turnovers are missed free throws in the late stages of a game. If you miss a free throw, you have missed a chance to score. That is the reason why Baylor is 8-2 in the conference. In games they have played in that have been decided by five points or less the Bears are shooting a league-best 85 percent from the charity stripe. They do not give away possessions at the end of a game. Missouri is shooting 81 percent from the line in the last four minutes of contests decided by five points or less.
So the next time you watch a game, zero in on how many offensive rebounds your team gets as opposed to the rebound margin (also how many offensive rebounds your opponent hauls in). Next, count the missed shot opportunities created by turning the ball over. If you win those two areas you will win a high percentage of your games.
Finally, since most games tend to be close games, don't forget to pay close attention to those "silent turnovers."
He's Just A Junior, Coach
February 3, 2012 Chad McKee, Big 12 Network
It happens to every coach at least once a year. He's sitting with one of his assistants watching tape of last year's game with an upcoming opponent and one guy is just killing coach's team. Coach says to his assistant, "Man I can't wait 'til next season when that guy's gone. " Assistant replies, "He's only a junior coach."
This year's Big 12 junior class has been responsible for more for more than its fair share of those film-study moments. This junior class accounts for five of the top 10 scorers, three of the top 10 rebounders and four of the top 10 assist makers in the league since Big 12 play started.
You could almost make this "All-Juniors" team the All-Big 12 First Team. In fact, I'll bet each member of our junior squad will make either the All-Big 12 First or Second Team.
|F||Thomas Robinson, 6-9, 237, Kansas
The leading candidate for Big 12 and National Player of the Year leads the conference in rebounding and is fourth in scoring. He has created so many problems for the league's coaches that some may be wishing the Morris twins would come back so that Robinson would be relegated to playing 13 minutes per game again.
|G||Pierre Jackson, 5-10, 175, Baylor
The junior-college transfer is tops in the league in assists and is second in steals. If you haven't seen Jackson in person, don't blink. He's not quick, he's sudden. And Jackson's ability to hit the game-winning 3-pointer at A&M has to worry opponents when future run-ins with the Bears get tight.
|G||Rodney McGruder, 6-4, 205, Kansas State
He deserved to be on preseason All-Big 12 teams, but kept quiet when left off. All McGruder has done is go out and bang out 19 points per game against conference foes while shooting 47 percent from the field - including 40 percent from downtown. If the Wildcats' season has been like a series of carnival rides, McGruder has been the Ferris Wheel - there every time and consistent in what he gives you.
|G||J'Covan Brown, 6-1, 197, Texas
When the Longhorns lost three players to the first round of last June's NBA Draft, the weight on Brown's shoulders got heavier than he probably deserved. Let's remember, of Texas' 36 games last season, Brown started as many as I did. But he has fought through an ankle injury early in conference play to keep the ship afloat in Austin.
|G||Elston Turner, 6-5, 220, Texas A&M
The Washington transfer seems much happier being closer to his home in Missouri City, Texas. Illness and injuries have threatened to derail the Aggies' season, but Turner has stepped forward to lead the club in scoring and 3-point shooting.
|G||Steven Pledger, 6-4, 221, Oklahoma
Perhaps no player in the league has been a better barometer of how his team is going to play. Witness this: In the Sooners' wins, Pledger is averaging 20.8 points and shooting 58 percent from the field. In their losses, his numbers are 13 points and 33 percent shooting.
Perhaps the best part about our team is that, of the six players we've mentioned, only Robinson is a consensus, sure-fire, first-round NBA draft pick at this point. That likely means more thrills for Big 12 fans from most of these guys next season and more headaches for the league's coaches.
You Can Go Home Again
January 31, 2012 Rich Zvosec, Big 12 Network - @CoachZZ
It is often said that you can never go home again. However, this sentiment does not hold true in the Big 12 Conference. When you examine the coaching and playing background of the 10 head coaches in the league, you will see a familiar theme. Success and coming back home can go hand-in-hand.
All but three of the current head coaches have been in the Big 12 prior to their current positions. Only Rick Barnes (although he did coach in the other five major conferences) and Scott Drew did not have ties to the conference before their arrivals in Austin and Waco. I know that Frank Martin is a little bit of a stretch (hey, it's my definition of returning!) as he was an assistant at Kansas State prior to his elevation to the top spot. That being said, let's take a look at the other seven coaches in the conference.
New Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy was an Aggie assistant back in the 1990's and Missouri coach Frank Haith, prior to his arrival in Columbia, was an assistant at Texas for Rick Barnes. First year head coach Billy Gillispie was the turnaround artist at Texas A&M prior to his arrival in Lubbock.
Travis Ford at Oklahoma State is one of four coaches to have played at a Big 12 school prior to the beginning of a coaching career. Ford spent his first couple of years playing for Norm Stewart at Missouri. The final three coaches played and coached in the conference prior to their current positions.
Kansas head coach, Bill Self, was a four year letterman at Oklahoma State. He began his coaching tenure as a graduate assistant at Kansas and then spent seven years as an assistant at his alma mater. His first run as a Jayhawk assistant resulted in a Final Four appearance. As a head coach, he has won the Conference title seven straight years and counting.
Fred Hoiberg and Lon Kruger were two of the most prolific players in the history of Big 12 schools. For Iowa State, Hoiberg was a stalwart all-conference performer for the Cyclones before moving onto the NBA. Returning to his alma mater last year, he has reignited the passion in ISU fans and "The Mayor" has Hilton Magic working again.
Kruger was an all-conference player at Kansas State and then returned as the school's head coach and led the Wildcats to four NCAA Tournament appearances. After a few collegiate and professional coaching stints, he has found himself in Norman rebuilding the Sooner program.
Looking at the records of the current head coaches I would dare anyone to say "you can never go home again". Any of these men have provided it in their returns to the Big 12!
A Lost Art Not Lost On The Big 12
January 27, 2012 Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network - @Stephen_speaks
As a freshman in Dallas at Bishop Lynch High School, my basketball coach, Jim McCloskey, would always tell me while I practiced free throws at the end of practice one simple mantra - "Free throws win and lose close ball games". Now, every time I'm watching or calling a game that mantra comes to mind, especially in the closing moments of a close ball game.
I look at the landscape of college basketball today and like the mid-range game, the art of shooting free throws effectively seems to have lost its luster in the era of "breaking ankles" and the oohs and aaahs that get the crowd going.
That's why it is so refreshing to see that the Big 12 has some of the best free throw shooters in the country. If you look at the latest NCAA statistics, you will see four of the top 10 free throw shooters come from the Big 12, with two from the same team. It's no surprise that the two players that come from the same team - Michael Dixon at No. 6 and No. 7 Marcus Denmon - also play for a Missouri squad that is currently ranked No. 2 in the country. Dixon and Denmon shoot 90.7 percent and 90.5 percent from the free throw line, respectively.
Shooting above 90 percent from the free throw line is exceptional because, unlike shooting a jump shot, when you are on the free throw line, all eyes are on you - LITERALLY! The love of your home crowd or the wrath of the oppositions' fans are all pointed in your direction and believe me, you can feel it. I think that is one of the reasons that free throw shooting in games is so difficult. It's hard to simulate the noise, the nervousness or the pressure of making a free throw to win ice or tie a game while you're in practice.
As a former player who has made free throws to win or ice games in the past, there is nothing like the pressure or the release after you make those free throws. But more importantly, there is nothing like the confidence your teammates have in you when you are walking to the free throw line...knowing you won't let them down.
I look at Ty Nurse of Texas Tech, who is leading the Big 12 in free throw accuracy and ranks fourth in the nation with a .918 mark and I am impressed with his mental toughness. Just like good free throw shooting is contagious, bad free throw shooting can be as well. The fact that he is on a team that has struggled thus far in Big 12 conference play, it would be easy to see how a player could succumb to poor habits and lack of concentration, all of which are a necessity to exceptional free throw shooting. However, Ty has seemingly bucked that trend to serve as one of the bright spots on a Texas Tech team looking for the silver lining in everything.
The last player on my list of stellar Big 12 free throw shooters is Steven Pledger of Oklahoma. Steven is currently 10th nationally at 90 percent. As the leading scorer of his Oklahoma Sooners team, he has had to carry the load offensively and he has done an admirable job. What is more remarkable is the fact that he has gone from a career 85 percent free throw shooter to 90 percent this year while shooting more free throws. We haven't even hit midway of the conference season schedule and he has almost eclipsed the number of free throws he attempted last year. Going from an .850 to .900 while shooting more free throws is like going from a student with a C average to one on the honor roll while taking harder classes...that just doesn't happen often.
My hat goes off to all of these free throw shooters, not only for their near perfection on the free throw line, but more importantly, for keeping alive that dwindling art of exceptional free throw shooting.
Expect The Unexpected
January 24, 2012 Brad Sham, Big 12 Network
We're not quite to the halfway point of the season yet. That'll come next week. But we're close enough to look back and ahead and figure out that we didn't know everything we thought we knew.
Confused? That's okay. There's been a little bit confusing about the Big 12 men's basketball season so far. If we're paying attention, we ought to know we've got unpredictability in store for the next six weeks.
At Big 12 Basketball Media Days in October, league coaches voted Kansas and Texas A&M co-favorites to win the league, with the Jayhawks getting a few more first-place votes. As usual, KU is playing up to that forecast. There may have been stretches of his last two games at Texas and against A&M that coach Bill Self didn't like (no, scratch that; there definitely WERE stretches he didn't like), but nearing midseason, Kansas has the look of a team that can make some March noise.
The Aggies are clearly not having the kind of season they anticipated. But it's safe to say they also didn't anticipate Coach Billy Kennedy's illness, the loss of a point guard to transfer and other injuries. Judging by the way they played at Kansas and their overtime win over Oklahoma last weekend, A&M may be poised for the kind of second half they hoped the whole season would be like.
Baylor and Missouri were picked third and fourth by the league coaches. But it may be safe to say the league wasn't expected to have three teams in the top 10 or Missouri being ranked No. 2 in the country in the last full week of January.
Let's talk about some of the things that might have been considered unexpected as we project the second half of this season and let's start with Iowa State. The Cyclones have overachieved based on the preseason eighth-place selection. However, there were also some of us who got to see them practice last year, with some of the transfers forming the league's best practice squad, who thought they'd be competitive. And they are. They're led by (Rolls) Royce White, one of two players in the league (Thomas Robinson is the other) averaging a double-double for conference play. Catching an Iowa State game is worth your time.
Now if we're talking about unpredictability, no one comes to close to Texas. If you didn't know Longhorns coach Rick Barnes was a man of faith, you'd suspect it with the number of freshman he plays. Six and seven of them are playing significant roles every game for the 'Horns. That may have led to them being more erratic than usual up to this point. But because of the way they're coached, it may also be the reason Texas will be a big factor the next six weeks.
Kansas State is another squad like that. Coach Frank Martin has had to make changes and adjustments, but you can see the Wildcats getting better. It would be shocking not to see them involved well into March and anyone who has seen K-State teams play in March in recent years knows the opponent that draws the 'Cats will be in for a long night.
At this point, I really feel the need to almost apologize for using the M-word. I'm all about the journey, and it seems beyond silly looking ahead to tournament time when we're still in January. But it's what we all do, and honestly it's making this part of the Big 12 schedule more interesting.
This league is blessed to have some exceptional coaches and because of the unexpected nature of what's gone on so far, some of them are having to reach deep into their bags of tricks. It's been fascinating to watch Oklahoma's Lon Krueger and Barnes, Martin and Kennedy make well-timed lineup changes. It's also been interesting to see how the student-athletes have responded.
The challenges may be different for a Baylor, Kansas or Missouri (having to learn to deal with success), than for a Texas, K-State, Iowa State or OU dealing with transition. But this part of the season is the crucible. It will shape what we see later and it's more fun - because we don't know exactly what that will be.
Strength & Consistency Lies Within
January 20, 2012 Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network
In June of last summer, the Big 12 conference had six players chosen in the first-round of the annual NBA draft. In fact, four of those selections were lottery picks. The Big 12 was represented more in the opening round of the draft than any other league. Pretty impressive, if you ask me. The apparent exodus of these players that brought "Star Power" to the conference had many college basketball prognosticators anticipating a down year, and predictions of the Big 12 earning a spot on the lower end of the totem pole of the six major conferences.
Not so fast my friends! Currently the Big 12 is the only league to have three teams ranked in the top 10 nationally (No. 3 Baylor, No. 5 Missouri, No. 7 Kansas). Each are legitimate Final Four contenders The Big 12 also has the second-best winning percentage (.541) in the country among the six major conferences when playing each other.
In addition, not that I believe the RPI is the only benchmark in evaluating the strength of a conference, but the Big 12 has finished among the top three in conference RPI each of the four previous seasons (third again so far this year). How's that for consistency and strength?
Not to mention, the Big 12 currently has the leading candidate for National Player of the Year - Kansas' Thomas Robinson.
My intent is not necessarily to say at this moment that the Big 12 is America's top basketball conference - although you could make a case. My point is that the consistency and strength that this league has begun to prove year-in and year-out lies within.
It shouldn't be judged on the star talents who have left like Tristan Thompson and Marcus or Markieff Morris. It shouldn't even be judged on star talents who are new to the league like Baylor's Pierre Jackson or Iowa State's Royce White. It's actually the returners to the Conference who have developed under good coaching and hard work. It's those players who have experience at this level and step up their game when it's time for their team to rely heavily upon them.
Where does the consistency and strength comes from? It's originates from players like Quincy Acy of Baylor; Tyshawn Taylor and Travis Releford of Kansas; Rodney McGruder of Kansas State; Marcus Denmon and Kim English of Missouri; J'Covan Brown of Texas and others. These are the seniors and juniors who have improved each and every year and have raised the level of their game when their teams needed them ... and who are the new stars and strength of the Big 12 Conference.
Strength and consistency lies within!
A Little Courtside Officiating
January 17, 2012 Reid Gettys, Big 12 Network
During one of the games I was announcing last of week, an overzealous fan on the front row almost imploded over what was the "most obvious over-and-back call in the history of basketball." The situation was this - as the ball was being dribbled across the midline, the defense switched to a run-and-jump trap. As the trapping defender approached, the man with the ball picked up his dribble with one foot in the backcourt and one foot in the frontcourt, and then quickly reverse pivoted away from the defender, putting his front foot back into the backcourt. Clearly, he had stepped across the midline and back. After questioning all that was dear and sacred to the nearest official, our "well-lubricated" fan asked, "what kind of blind, moronic idiot could have missed that one?!" I chuckled to myself as I thought about what our official must have been thinking. While I certainly appreciate a passionate fan, I wanted to take my headset off and tell the guy that if he would sit down, close his mouth and wait for the next break, I would explain why he was making a fool of himself over a rule that he did not understand. Over the first couple of weeks of conference play, this was not the only situation that I had come up during a game that incorrectly generated a significant amount of emotional hostilities directed at the officials. Let's talk about two different situations involving the over-and-back rule and then, I want to explain our new secondary defender arc. Think of this as a commercial break where I get to take my headset off and defend the officials...
- 1) You will never embarrass yourself if you remember "the rule of three." A player has not established position in the frontcourt until both feet AND the ball has crossed the midline. What this means is that as a ball handler, I could dribble all the way down the midline alternating feet and/or the ball on either side of the midline and still be considered to be in the backcourt. As in the situation described above, I can also straddle the midline and as long as my pivot foot is in the backcourt, it does not matter that I step back and forth into the frontcourt. I have not "crossed" the line until both of my feet and the ball have crossed the midline, thus, the rule of three.
- 2) Another difficult interpretation of the over-and-back rule occurs when an offensive player is the last player to "touch" the ball the in frontcourt and the first to touch the ball in the backcourt. Here are a couple of hypotheticals; J'Covan Brown has control of the ball in the frontcourt. A.J. Walton knocks it loose and both players dive after the loose ball. The ball is tipped (not controlled, just tipped) by Brown and rolls into the backcourt. If Brown hustles to his feet and picks up the loose ball, he would have been the last to touch in the frontcourt and the first to touch in the backcourt, resulting in an over-and-back. It does not matter that Brown lost control or that the ball was touched by the defender it's a violation and Baylor's ball.
Secondary Defender Arc
The secondary defender arc was put onto the court with the intent of protecting the offensive player when he leaves his feet while attacking the rim. Player safety should certainly be paramount in all of our rules; however, this one was not needed. I have always felt that our officials have consistently done a terrific job of not calling charges underneath the basket. I could probably count on one hand the number of charges I have seen called in the last 15 years where the help defender set up underneath the rim and was not called for a block. With the implementation of the arc painted on the floor, we are now asking our officials to not only make the correct call on the action that is occurring well above their heads, but in a split second. We now want them to look down at the help-side defender's feet to see if he is touching the arc. That is just too much to ask. In my opinion, all this rule really does is provide fodder for in-house replays with the unnecessary potential to embarrass officials. Anyone can make the call looking at a super-slow motion replay, a luxury not provided to the official (not reviewable on the courtside monitor).
Also remember, this is a SECONDARY DEFENDER rule. The primary defender can still draw a charge within or standing upon the arc. The rule is applied to the defender rotating over to help on the dribble penetration. The other problem with this rule is when the offensive team is in transition, by definition, there is no primary/secondary defender as everyone scrambles to pick up the nearest man. The rule states that in transition, every defender is secondary, until it becomes clear that someone has stepped up as the primary.
Is it really fair to require the officials to make a distinction that oftentimes, neither the players nor coaches could make without looking a replay?
...well I better get down off my soapbox and put my headset back on. What a great season we are going to have this year! Go to the games, have fun, be loud...and know the rules!
The "All-Something" Teams
January 13, 2012 Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network - @MitchHolthus
Doug Bell's blog about the grind of an 18-game conference schedule was compelling and the double round-robin format should definitely provide for some entertaining games in the Big 12. The Conference has hit full stride now, so it's time to have some fun and name some of my unique "all-conference" teams.
All-Six Foot And Under Team:
Pierre Jackson, Baylor (5'10")
Angel Rodriguez, Kansas State (5'11")
Phil Pressey, Missouri (5'10")
Keiton Page, Oklahoma State (5'9")
Javarez Willis, Texas Tech (5'11")
BuBu Palo, Iowa State
Myck Kabongo, Texas
Dash Harris, Texas A&M
Javarez "Bean" Willis, Texas Tech
DeShaun "Biggie" Minnis, Texas Tech
Thomas Robinson, Kansas, 6-7, 237 (Co-Captain)
Royce White, Iowa State, 6-8, 270 (Co-Captain)
Quincy Acy, Baylor, 6-7, 235
Thomas Gipson, Kansas State, 6-7, 275
Romero Osby, Oklahoma, 6-8, 232
All-Card Game Coaches' Team
Bill Self, Kansas
Billy Gillispie, Texas Tech
Frank Martin, Kansas State
Empty Chair .... Waiting for Bob Huggins when he joins the league from West Virginia
(Wouldn't it be fun to hear the conversation if these four were matchup up in a competitive game of cards?!)
These are just a few thoughts as we get ready for the start of Conference play. If any fans or alumni want to make additions or changes, feel free to send a tweet to me at the account above.
Let's continue the games and have some more fun over the next 70 days!
Lace 'Em Up Tight
January 10, 2012 - Doug Bell, Big 12 Network - @DougBellESPN
A double round-robin schedule - which the Big 12 faces this season - is not for wimps! In fact, it's one of the most challenging things a major college basketball player and their coaching staff will face. The Big 12 is the only one of the six major conferences to use the double round-robin format, in which a team plays every conference opponent twice, home and away. Eighteen games will decide the regular-season champion instead of 16, and no longer will there be those "what if" questions concerning a team avoiding the top squads in the league or not playing at their venue.
We are not taking away anything from the seven straight titles that Kansas has won. However, if the Jayhawks can do it for the eighth consecutive season, then this might be the one Bill Self cherishes the most. Last week, when I spoke with Bill, he admitted that his staff and players have discussed the round-robin format. "No more two days off during the regular season and the tougher teams will survive". What Coach Self means is not only tough physically, but mentally.
I announced a Yale Bulldogs game a few weeks ago, and the Ivy League has been using this format forever. In fact, that's how the Ivy League decides its champion and NCAA automatic qualifier - there is no league tournament. Bulldogs coach James Jones, who is the longest tenured coach in the Ivy League coaching after 13 years at Yale, smiled when I brought up the subject of the Big 12 and the round-robin format. He said, "The players are going to love it. I'm not sure about the coaches (chuckling). Seriously, it's the best way. The players get a chance to redeem themselves. If they played poorly in the first game, and your fans get to see everyone, they're going to enjoy it."
Coaches love to use the old analogy, "It is a marathon, not a sprint". That's never truer than this season. For a team like Texas A&M that has gotten off to a slow start, there is time to climb back in the race. For a team like Baylor, teams will now have extra chances to figure out a way to find holes in the Bears' defense.
I was excited last weekend on Studio 66 talking about it and then discussing it in our production meetings with analyst Bryndon Manzer and producer Todd Jones. We all agreed, the new format will add even more excitement to the Big 12 regular season and come NCAA Tournament selection time, I believe playing extra regular season games in what might be the top league in America will definitely enhance some resumes.
It's time to lace 'em up tight boys, the new double round-robin format will clearly separate the have's from the have not's. It should be fun!
Dιjΰ vu All Over Again?
January 6, 2012 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network - @davearmstrong12
For seven straight years, the Kansas Jayhawks have had their named etched on the Big 12 Conference trophy. They have filled their ever-expanding mantel with more and more hardware. In almost 40 years as members of the old Big 8 Conference, KU won 13 titles. They've already captured 11 conference regular-season crowns in the first 15 years of the Big 12.
To say they have dominated this league in men's basketball is like saying it's colder in the winter in the Midwest. Sure they've shared some of those titles, but year-in and year-out, you could always count on the Jayhawks being at or near the top. Even after they won the National Championship and lost six players to the NBA draft, Kansas won. To not pick them again would be foolhardy. And yet, many have been saying this may be the best chance for the rest of the league to knock KU off its perch. After all, the Jayhawks lost five players from last year's team, including three more to the NBA. Adding to that, Kansas lost almost their entire recruiting class for various reasons. Yes, this looked like the year for the rest of the Big 12 to step up and grab the top prize.
It still may happen. The Big 12 features two of the four remaining unbeaten teams in the NCAA. Baylor and Missouri have been extremely impressive. The Bears have marched through a pretty tough non-conference schedule and then beat preseason favorite Texas A&M in their Big 12 opener. The Tigers have run roughshod over practically everyone. They took apart Oklahoma in their Conference debut. Mizzou creates interesting match-up problems with their quick, experienced, and great shooting guards. You'd still have to say right now that Baylor and/or Missouri would be the favorite to win the Big 12 this year. And that brings us back to Kansas.
Last night, I called a game at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence between the Jayhawks and their cross-state rival, the Kansas State Wildcats. K-State has always prided itself on its toughness. Particularly when it comes to rebounding. They were outrebounded by Kansas 50-26! In my book, that's a statement. That's KU saying, "Wait just a minute...don't hand that trophy to someone else just yet." If not for turnovers, the Jayhawks' Achilles heel, the margin of victory would have been even greater. It was a dominant defensive performance, and should dispel any thoughts that the king is dead. I'm not sure how all of this is going to play out, but I do think the road to the Big 12 Championship still travels through Lawrence.