Kansas Is Sweet In NCAA Play
March 21, 2011 - Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network
The Big 12 Conference has produced at least one Elite Eight member nine of the past 11 years in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, seven of those 11 seasons the league produced TWO Elite Eight participants. This year, the Kansas Jayhawks stand alone in trying to carry the Big 12 banner into the Elite Eight and beyond. Hello Sweet Sixteen….hello Kansas Jayhawks and hello to an upset riddled bracket that should propel the Crimson and Blue into the Final Four.
The bracket has been cleaned out for Kansas. Florida State’s upset of the 2 seed Notre Dame late Sunday night left only the No. 12, 11 and 10 seeds to beat to make a date in Houston. Moreover, the 4, 5, 6 and 7 seeds in KU’s bracket all LOST their first game of the tournament. Here is a rundown of all five Big 12 NCAA participants, with Kansas being the only team remaining.
Kansas (2-0): KU is playing some of its best defensive basketball at the right time. The Jayhawks struggled in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Championship in Kansas City versus Oklahoma State…..that is where the struggles ended. Bill Self’s Jayhawks have been dominant in crushing Colorado, Texas, Boston University and Illinois in succession. The Morris twins have been the better of any inside match for some time and the backcourt play is peaking at the right time. The key is how Kansas is defending opponents now on a consistent basis both on the perimeter and on the inside. Kansas is not only playing “fast” as usual on the offensive end, the Texas win in Kansas City proved that KU is now playing “fast” on defense as well. They should roll into Houston and pummel the rest of their bracket.
Texas (1-1): The biggest question of the tournament is why Jordan Hamilton called time out with 12.4 seconds left in the Longhorns tough loss to Arizona. Hamilton picked up a contested rebound and the Longhorns were protecting a two point lead. If Hamilton doesn’t call time out, the clock will probably run off two more seconds and Hamilton would have been fouled by Arizona. Hamilton could have given the ‘Horns a three point lead with one free throw and probably would have won the game with two free makes. Texas could not inbound the ball after the time out and suffered a five-second violation opening the door for Arizona to win the game. J’Covan Brown was brilliant on offense for the ‘Horns with 23 points and 13-of-13 from the free throw line. Yet, Texas never regained its dominance from their 11-game winning streak in January and February, finishing their season with five wins and five losses in its last 10 games.
Kansas State (1-1): Congratulations to Jacob Pullen for a remarkable two game performance in the NCAA Tournament. Pullen ended his career as K-State’s all-time leading scorer by surpassing Mike Evans, whose standard held for 34 years. Pullen fought illness but still registered 60 total points in two tough games against Utah State and Wisconsin. Frank Martin’s Wildcats needed some help for Pullen and Rodney McGruder had to give some perimeter scoring help for the ‘Cats to have a chance to beat hard-nosed Wisconsin.
Texas A&M (0-1): Mark Turgeon did a commendable job in getting his Aggies to third in the conference with 10 league wins. I knew the Florida State draw would be a tough one for A&M because Leonard Hamilton has worked hard to improve the FSU defense. The battle with Florida State was a duel of two similar teams that would come down to who would make critical shots after the “under eight” second half time out. It was Florida State that was able to make those shots. Michael Snaer’s big hoop late in the second half allowed FSU to grab an eight point lead. The Aggies can’t be too disappointed; they won games like this all season long. It was Florida State’s first NCAA win since 1998.
Missouri (0-1): The loss to Cincinnati didn’t shock me. The Tigers again were going to be vulnerable to the style of the opponent that they drew in the first game. The Bearcats were similar to Texas A&M in that they were solid and athletic in the frontcourt but also emphasized half-court defense. The Tigers seemed to be searching ever since their second half rally at K-State fell short on February 26. The Tigers lost that game and five out of their last six contests, including four of the final five by double digits.
A Look At The Postseason
March 15, 2011 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network
The Big 12 will once again be well-represented in the NCAA's, but not as well represented as they should have been. It's a real head-scratcher that the selection committee left the Colorado Buffaloes off the dance card. I'm trying to figure out how the Buffs were omitted from the field, and I've come up empty. The Buffs are more than deserving. Three wins over Kansas State, plus victories over Missouri when they were the No. 9 team in the land, and a win versus Texas should have been more than enough to make the tournament. This one doesn't make sense.
Before we look at the five teams representing the Big 12 in the NCAA Tournament, let's wish the Buffs, the Cowboys of Oklahoma State and the Cornhuskers of Nebraska all the best in the NIT. I think one of those three will cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden. Good luck!
Also, how about a quick peek in the rear view mirror at another terrific Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship? Starting with the closest opening-round ever right through another final between Kansas and Texas, it was a terrific way to finish off another stellar Big 12 season. We've run out of adjectives for Kansas, a team that continues their dominance of the Conference. The Jayhawks saved their best for last. With six players in double figures, KU made life more than difficult for the Longhorns. Congratulations to KU for yet another Championship victory in Kansas City. What a scene at the Power and Light district all week long. The fans came out in record numbers, the weather from Thursday on was heavenly - it's hard to imagine a more perfect setting.
Now, on to the NCAA's. Let's start with Kansas, a No. 1 seed in the Southwest Region. The Jayhawks start in Tulsa, where Bill Self is more than comfortable. After all, he coached at both Oral Roberts and for the Golden Hurricane. After a couple of games there, it would be on to San Antonio where KU won a National Championship just a few years ago. A nice path for the Jayhawks and they've earned it with regular season and postseason championships in the Big 12. Joining Kansas in the Southwest are the Aggies of Texas A&M. I wouldn't want to take on Mark Turgeon's squad and I think they'll handle Florida State.
In the Southeast, Kansas State is a No. 5 seed. The Wildcats start with Utah State and then a possible match-up with Wisconsin in a battle of great point guards. I think K-State will once again be propelled by a loss to Colorado and advance deep into NCAA's.
Texas was sent out West, in what is arguably the most difficult regional. Duke is the top seed in a bracket that also includes San Diego State, Connecticut and Arizona. Missouri is also in the West, and the Tigers have the biggest first round challenge among the five representing the Big 12. But I look for the Tigers to bounce the Bearcats.
I hope you get your bracket filled out, and I hope one of the five from the Big 12 will celebrate a National Championship in Houston. Let the madness begin!
Ready For The Rematch
March 12, 2011 - Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network
It's the rematch that has been the desire of a lot of college basketball fans since January 22. The results of the semifinal games Friday night now presents a Kansas-Texas rematch on Saturday. Seven weeks ago, UT captured perhaps the biggest victory in all of college basketball this season when they broke KU's 69-game home court winning streak. Now, the Jayhawks look for revenge in front of nearly 19,000 fans at Sprint Center. It won't be easy, because Texas seems to have its confidence back.
Kansas dispatched of a Colorado team that looked tired. CU stars Cory Higgins and Alec Burks appeared fatigued and didn't attack the Jayhawks on the dribble in the second half. KU used big spurts by the Morris twins who combined for 40 points, 23 rebounds and 17-of-20 at the foul line. Colorado coach Tad Boyle had to use drastic measures to keep his players fresh. The Buffs played little used Trent Beckley and Ben Mills in the game just to provide some rest for their stars, but Kansas made critical runs when the Buffs had to use the end of the bench. KU also got a strong offensive performance from Tyshawn Taylor who netted 15 points, much off dribble penetration in the lane.
Texas appears to have recovered from their slump where they lost three of four games in a nine-day span. The Longhorns were able to beat their arch-rival Texas A&M for the third time this year and for the seventh time in the last 10 games. Tristan Thompson looked like some creature from a video game. It is clear that the Aggies were intimidated inside by Thompson. He had a "Godzilla" double-double as he had 14 points and 13 rebounds including an amazing 10 offensive boards. The Aggies entire team only had 13 offensive rebounds. Again, the Longhorn bench was a factor as J'Covan Brown made three 3-pointers on his way to 15 bench points. Jordan Hamilton, who will need to have a GREAT game against Kansas, had 17 tallies, including a huge triple late in the second half.
The rematch is here….Kansas wants revenge….Texas wants to win its first Big 12 Championship postseason title. Rick Barnes' Longhorn squads have lost three times in the finals of this event to the Jayhawks. We have waited nearly fifty days for this game - Rick Barnes has waited 13 years to win this Championship. Let's get started!
Recaps & Predictions
March 11, 2011 - Doug Bell, Big 12 Network
The Colorado Buffaloes are making the most of their final appearance in the Big 12 Championship. They not only have made the semifinals for the first time ever but they have also secured an NCAA Tournament bid according to Joe Lunardi our ESPN bracketologist.
I spoke with Buffs head coach Tad Boyle last night while he was watching the night session with his wife and he admitted it was very special what was happening. Throw in the fact that his old team, Northern Colorado, earned its first trip to the big dance winning on Wednesday night and Boyle is brimming with confidence and pride. I thoroughly enjoyed talking with the coach and his star player on Studio 66 after their win against Iowa State. Boyle talked about the special chemistry on his team and the high level that Burks is playing right now. Burks, a Kansas City native who grew up about eight miles from the Sprint Center in Grandview, Missouri is the tourney Most Outstanding Player up to this point. I loved what he said on our live broadcast when I asked him about all that was at stake in this championship and he said simply, "we do what we do". Somewhere Yogi Berra is so proud. Throw in Cory Higgins who poured in 29 against K-State and this team is formidable against anybody, even Kansas.
The Jayhawks struggled against Oklahoma State but they survived and in March that's the only thing that matters. Twice in the regular season KU handled Colorado without a lot of trouble. Even though CU is playing its best basketball of the season, I think Kansas will advance thanks to a later starting time and a raucous crowd that gives KU a distinctive home court feel, along with a frontcourt that should impose their will for the third time against the smaller Buffaloes.
Texas will try and pull off the hat trick against the Aggies. Both teams won with relative ease last night, and appear to be in good shape for tonight's game and a run in the NCAA Tourney. The only problem for the Aggies is that they simply don't match up well against Texas in the backcourt. The Longhorns tandem of Dogus Balbay and Corey Joseph have totally exhausted the Aggies Dash Harris and B.J. Holmes this season, while Jordan Hamilton has identified the flavor of gum that Khris Midldleton is chewing in both of the regular season matchups.
Kansas and Texas were the two best teams during the regular season and I believe they'll meet for the second time on Saturday night. Kansas players have not forgotten the home loss on January 22 when Texas delivered a beat down in the second half - silencing the Phog. I've watched Kansas beat Texas three times in the Big 12 championship game from 2006-2008. Amazingly Rick Barnes and the Longhorns have never hoisted the Big 12 trophy. Defense wins titles, and Saturday night I believe Rick will be on the ladder cutting down the nets in Kansas City.
A Look Back At Quarterfinals Day
March 11, 2011 - Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network
PATIENCE - THE WORD OF SESSION 3
First of all, a huge bow to Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford and his Cowboys for their efforts as they nearly upset Kansas. I was impressed with the strength of the OSU players. Many times they appeared to be stronger than KU to loose balls and rebounds and that strength almost led them to a huge upset. Cowboy front liners Matt Pilgrim and Marshall Moses combined for 17 rebounds and the Pokes outscored the Jayhawks in the paint.
Yet, Kansas was strong enough to hold off the Cowboys. The word that was impressed on me watching the end of the game was …PATIENCE. How patient did Mario Little have to be last year when Bill Self redshirted him? Little is a former junior college player of the year and I'm sure Mario wants to showcase his 6'5" frame on the Jayhawk perimeter. Self showed his coaching ability at the end of the game when he attacked the INSIDE of the Poke zone with Little catching and scoring in the vulnerable areas of the zone defense. When you listen to me calling a game, I refer to the vital areas of the zone defense as the "honey spots". Self found the land of milk-and-honey with Little in the middle when Kansas needed offense late. The strategy was especially effective because the Jayhawks shot 5-of-25 from 3-point range.
Marcus Morris also proved why he is indeed the Big 12 Player of the Year. Morris made critical plays all day long with another double-double (16 points, 11 rebounds). His 3-point field goal at the four-minute mark with the shot clock winding down set up the "Self-imposed" strategy mentioned above.
Big 12 fans often discuss the next conference players to enter the NBA. Marcus Morris, Jordan Hamilton and Perry Jones usually dominate that conversation. However, Big 12 Championship session 3 put Cory Higgins in the middle of that discussion. Higgins, who is the son of Charlotte Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins, needs to send the tape of his game against K-State here to his Dad and the other 29 GM's of the NBA. Higgins was magnificent for Tad Boyle's Buffs in their win over the Wildcats. Cory's offensive line of 28 points on 15 shots will be the obvious reason for accolades, but the game was won with Higgins' defense of SuperCat Jacob Pullen. Pullen was dogged by Higgins all day and forced 13 missed shots from Pullen along with four rare Pullen turnovers. Higgins, who Big 12 analyst Bryndon Manzer called the most underrated player in the Big 12, will FIND an NBA roster somewhere and probably with Iowa State guard Diante Garrett.
By the way, kudos to Colorado's Boyle who has now put his team in the NCAA Tournament. Tad is also proud of his old team the Northern Colorado Bears of the Big Sky Conference. The Bears also made the NCAA's for the first time in school history. Remember, it was Boyle who took UNC to Division I from Division II and had to endure a 4-24 season before leaving the UNC program in great shape before he arrived in Boulder.
THE CLINIC WAS OPEN
We should have invited middle school and high school coaches to session 4 because both Texas and Texas A&M put on clinics as they eliminated Oklahoma and Missouri, respectively. Rick Barnes was excited about two things after his win over the Sooners. He liked his defense and he liked his bench. If the Longhorns are going to win this event, both areas must be prominent and consistent. Texas' bench was good against OU and Jai Lucas gave the Horns some very good minutes. UT was dominant when they won 11 in a row during the regular season and were tracking on setting several Big 12 defensive records. I had the Texas loss to Nebraska on February 19 and that setback seemed to temper the Longhorns confidence, especially on defense. That confidence slowly seems to be coming back and if they play defense against Texas A&M like they did during the regular season, then the Longhorns will have another chance to win their first Big 12 postseason championship.
A&M was brilliant against Missouri on offense and defense. You can revisit my initial blog before the championship started and see that the Aggies followed that formula to a tee. The Aggie frontline, led by David Loubeau and Nathan Walkup, started the game attacking the Mizzou bigs and never relented. The Aggies are thin at guard, but Mark Turgeon's substituting pattern appeared to be well-planned with a rotation of Dash Harris, BJ Holmes and Andrew Darko. Turgeon's organization was impressive in the win over MU. The Tigers all-court pressure bothered A&M slightly, but overall the Aggies controlled this game from start to finish.
Now, it's a semifinal matchup featuring one of the Big 12's best rivalries….Texas and Texas A&M. The two bitter rivals have met in the Big 12 Championship only once before…in the 2006 semis in Dallas, Texas.
Day One In The Books
March 10, 2011 - Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network
First of all, this venue is outstanding. Sprint Center was built to host this event and the outdoor activities with the Power & Light District and other areas truly give the Big 12 Basketball Championship a Final Four or NCAA Regional Final feel.
The first game of session 1 had a surreal ending for me. I grew up on the Kansas-Nebraska border and while Nebraska football made the Huskers a household name, I also remember the past of Husker basketball. I stood and watched as the NU basketball team left the floor for the final time as a Big 12 member (pending the postseason). To truly appreciate the moment, one has to remember Nebraska was a member of the Big 6, Big 7, Big 8 and Big 12. I watched 100 years of history walk off the floor when Oklahoma State stopped Husker guard Lance Jeter on one final futile attempt.
I thought of coaches Joe Ciprano, Moe Iba and Danny Nee and players like Tom Scantlebury, Leroy Chalk, Jerry Fort, Stu Lantz and Dave Hoppen. I thought of cold, winter nights listening to Husker basketball games on the radio involving showdown games with Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri. I saw those memories walk off the floor Wednesday afternoon. I don't want to be misunderstood - I'm as excited as anyone about the Big 12 basketball schedule next year, but for one moment….I looked back.
There Aren't Any Hiden "Jewels" In College Basketball Recruiting Anymore ... Not!
The second game of session 1 showcased two players who disprove the current strategy of college basketball recruiting. Such recruiting has become a race to get early commitments - in some cases as early as a prospect's freshman or sophomore year of high school. There is also a general impression that everyone is aware of ANY big time college basketball recruit. Colorado's Alec Burks and Andre Roberson are exceptions to that mantra. Burks was incredible down the stretch against Iowa State and his 29 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and three steals was one of the best individual performances in Big 12 Championship history. He was under-recruited as a Kansas City native who played at Grandview High School and has become a legitimate NBA top prospect. Andre Roberson was signed very late in the recruiting season by Buff Head Coach Tad Boyle out of San Antonio. As good as Burks was against Iowa State, the Buffs probably wouldn't have beaten the Cyclones had Roberson not have registered his 15 rebounds. Suffice it to say, there are still many overlooked college basketball recruits and Colorado found two of them.
A Lone Wolf
One of the most difficult roles to play in college athletics is to be a lone senior on a team. Such has been the season of Oklahoma guard Cade Davis, who has had one of the most up and down careers in OU history. Davis, as a freshman, had the blessing of playing with future National Player of the Year Blake Griffin. That campaign produced a NCAA Tournament appearance and 23 wins. The following year was Davis' last to play with Griffin. The Sooners won 30 games and made a run to the NCAA Elite Eight. Cade's junior season was much different. The Sooners were one of the nation's biggest disappointments and lost their last nine en route to an 18-loss season. This year had been similar, with Oklahoma owning a 13-17 record. Yet Davis has played some of his best basketball as his career comes to a close. He was the final Big 12 regular season Player of the Week and has averaged 21 points the past two weeks. The senior refused to let his team lose Bedlam to Oklahoma State in the final regular season matchup and he refused to let his team lose to a shell-shocked Baylor squad at Sprint Center. If you come to the quarterfinals on Thursday night and watch the Texas-Oklahoma game, make sure you give a little cheer to OU's lone senior Cade Davis…he deserves it.
Four In Four?
Missouri's hard fought win over a motivated Texas Tech team begs the question again…can a team win four games in four days at the Big 12 Championships. Mizzou is one of only four schools in the event's history to win three to make the finals and the Tigers have done it twice. MU was in the 1997 championship game as a No. 10 seed and made it to the finals in 2003 as a five seed. The Tigers have the depth and scoring ability to pull off the feat. The caveat here is that Mike Anderson's team must improve its half-court defense. That halfcourt battle will be amplified in their quarterfinal battle against Texas A&M. Remember, that this is an understated rivalry…A&M broke Missouri's long home-court winning streak two years ago and the Tigers thought they should have won this year's game in College Station.
You Never Forget The First Time
March 8, 2011 - Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network
The Sprint Center is ready, The Power and Light District is open and it's time for the Big 12 Basketball Championship in Kansas City. Could this be the first time that Texas, Texas A&M or Kansas State claims a title?
It's noteworthy that this year's No. 2, 3 and 4 seeds have NEVER won the Big 12 postseason championship. It's also important to remember that no seed lower than No. 4 has won the event. So, the pre-championship focus is on the top four positions and only the No. 1 seed Kansas has ever celebrated a title (seven times!!).
Here's a school by school breakdown of those "first-timers" who hope the confetti falls on them Saturday night in Kansas City.
No. 2 Texas: Last postseason conference title - 1995 (Southwest Conference)
The Longhorns have been the epitome of the Big 12's "best man but never the groom". The Horns have finished runner-up five times in the Big 12 Championship and have the talent to win their first title this year. Rick Barnes' team was dominant for a month and a half and owns the most stunning win in college basketball this year. Texas proved they could be an elite team when they broke Kansas' 69-game home court winning streak in January. However, the Longhorns lost confidence and the regular season title when they were bested by Nebraska, Colorado and K-State in late February. Texas can win the Big 12 Championship this year if Jordan Hamilton has an MVP type tournament and rookies Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph can be consistent. Texas MUST also get three strong games from its bench, most notably post substitutes Alexis Wangmene and Matt Hill, who both gave Barnes strong minutes in the regular season finale at Baylor.
No. 3 Texas A&M: Last postseason conference title - 1987 (Southwest Conference)
Mark Turgeon should have been a strong candidate for Big 12 Coach of the Year. Turg did his best coaching job yet in College Station to pull his team into the No. 3 slot. The Aggies propensity to win close games is a plus as they arrive at Sprint Center. One-half of the Aggies Big 12 wins were by five points or less. B.J. Holmes has had an underrated year at the guard position. The Aggies can win the Big 12 Championship because of their depth on the front line. Different Aggies have been heroes at different times and David Loubeau, Khris Middleton and Nathan Walkup can all put pressure on opponent's front lines. The Aggies are thin at the guard positions and Holmes and Dash Harris must hold up for three games, while sub Andrew Darko must hold his own for valuable minutes.
No. 4 Kansas State: Last postseason conference title - 1980 (Big 8)
K-State drives over to Kansas City as the Big 12's hottest team. Frank Martin's Wildcats have won eight of their last nine games and only a "nano-second" disallowed last-second shot has kept the 'Cats from perfection since February 1. Jacob Pullen was a STRONG candidate to be Big 12 Player of the Year. Pullen had the single best performance of the season when he netted 38 points against Kansas. It was the best performance against a team ranked No. 1 in the country since 1968! Pullen can't win a title alone, but he will be helped by K-State's new four-man motion "pinch post" offense. The scheme has helped Rodney McGruder, Will Spradling, Jordan Henriquez-Roberts and Curtis Kelly contribute to Pullen's Herculean efforts. Kansas State has to play hungry and avoid high turnover totals to win the title.
This should prove to be a "high energy" championship - much like last year's which had a Final Four feeling inside AND outside the building. If the seeds hold firm, just imagine a Texas-Texas A&M and Kansas-Kansas State semifinal doubleheader on Friday. If that is the case, it would be the first time ever that the bitter rivals will provide such a tasty "double-card". This Championship just might prove that there is a "first-time" for everything.
March 7, 2011 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network
Here we are friends, the opening act of something called March Madness. The regular season script has already been written. Now it's Tourney Time. This is a chance for redemption for some, validation for others. This is when the serious work gets done. This is the time when heroes are born. Some players will rise to the occasion, others will fall. The drama starts at the Conference level. The drama around here unfolds with the Phillips 66 Big 12 Basketball Championship. I hope you're coming to Kansas City to watch the action live at the Sprint Center, but if not, you can see each game in "stunning" high definition. Here's a snapshot of what we'll see.
Four teams have earned the right to take the first day off. Kansas, with their staggering and amazing seventh straight Big 12 title is the No. 1 seed. In this day and age of one or two and done players, that streak is one of the most remarkable in the history of the sport. Texas staggered and then righted the ship against Baylor to close the regular season, and the Longhorns are the No. 2 seed. The Aggies were picked sixth at the start of the year, but Texas A&M overachieved its way to the third seed. Kansas State rode the roller coaster this year. They began as the odds on favorite, were ranked No. 3 in the country, only to sink to the bottom. With guidance from Frank Martin, leadership from Jacob Pullen, and the heart of a champion, the Wildcats come to KC as perhaps the hottest team in the league. So those four get to watch Wednesday's action with the rest of us.
The leadoff game will feature Nebraska and Oklahoma State. The Cornhuskers are a threat to beat anybody. They played Kansas to within three points at Allen Fieldhouse, and they gave Texas its first Conference loss. Oklahoma State is equally dangerous. The Cowboys feature the sharp shooting Keiton Page and some real strength inside with Marshall Moses. This one's a real toss-up.
Next up is Colorado and Iowa State. The Buffaloes are barely in the NCAA Tournament according to Joe Lunardi, so a loss by CU to the Cyclones would be devastating. Here's the problem, ISU is the best last place team in any major conference. This won't be easy. CU just lost in Ames, they can't afford to do it again.
The evening session on Wednesday will begin with Baylor and Oklahoma. Just read the above paragraph and this game will take on the same tone. The Bears are teetering on the edge of the NCAA's - this would be a good time to make a positive impression on the selection committee. Baylor feature's the Big 12's all-time leading scorer and a trio of "Bigs" that are truly that. Cade Davis has shown great leadership for OU - he's the Sooners only senior. This will be a tough test for Oklahoma - we'll see how much fight they have left.
Day one concludes with Missouri and Texas Tech. The Tigers looked like a lock to be one of the top four seeds just two weeks ago, but three straight losses have lowered their seed to No. 6. Two of the three losses were on the road, and the other was to Kansas. Mizzou will fill the house with fans, and they can fill the basket as well. Texas Tech is a team that's hard to figure out. I'll be looking to see if Mike Singletary can have another "singular moment" like he had against Texas A&M a few years ago when he scored 43 points. This game could provide an exciting conclusion to the first four games, but it's only the opening act. March Madness indeed - I can't wait!
Never Out Of It
March 4, 2011 - Reid Gettys, Big 12 Network
The best argument in favor of a college football playoff system is of course, the NCAA Tournament. Around this time of the year, as excitement begins to build, BCS system apologists inevitably suggest that their system is better, "because the regular season means more." I chuckle every time I hear that, nothing could be further from the truth! The fact that your team could have struggled all year long, and then somehow, miraculously, turn things around for one week at a conference tournament, does not support your argument. Just the opposite - that is one of the possibilities that makes this time of the year so compelling!
Take Iowa State for example (Sidenote: Geez, I love what Fred Hoiberg is building in Ames! Add yesterday's announcement of Korie Lucious joining current transfers Chris Allen, Royce White, Chris Babb and Anthony Booker. If you are a Cyclone, this means "sooner" rather than "later"!). After struggling to win close games all season long, ISU is a legitimate threat to get to Kansas City and win multiple games! Don't believe me? Call one of your friends that is a Buffs fan and ask them their thoughts after Wednesday night! If you are a true believer, you find yourself wondering if your team can be the first Big 12 team to ever win four games in four days. Explain to me how that is a bad thing or how that possibility renders the regular season meaningless? Nonsense!
Now for the teams who still have work to do for an at-large bid. Last night, Joe Lunardi had three Big 12 teams on his "First Four Out" list - Baylor, Colorado and Nebraska. As you hear and see more and more about RPI, I want to share some historical data with you to help you interpret your team's resume.
Heading into next week's Big 12 Championship in Kansas City, I think five Big 12 schools - Kansas, Texas, Kansas State, Texas A&M and Missouri - have secured bids. Four more - Baylor, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma State - are still "in the discussion" and will be talked about greatly in the committee room in Indianapolis. Those four may have work to do, but the strength of the Big 12 allows every one of them to impress the committee in the coming days and at Sprint Center in Kansas City. I don't know about you, but I can't wait for the excitement to begin!
The Mystery Of Next Year
March 1, 2011 - Brad Sham, Big 12 Network
Hard to imagine this season is almost over. Seems like the basketballs just came out of the bag and here we are with one weekend separating us from the Big 12 Championship - and March Madness.
In the next few installments of "Covering the Baseline", Dave Armstrong and Mitch Holthus will be previewing the conference championship and the prospects for the postseason. Probably between five and seven league teams will be concerning themselves about NCAA seeds, matchups and their chances to get to Houston at the beginning of April.
Of those, I'm guessing fans of maybe four aren't thinking past that. Kansas and Texas have looked like Final Four-worthy teams and Missouri, A&M and Kansas State must all be thinking about the exploits of last year's Baylor and K-State groups and how lightning can be caught in a bottle in the next two weeks.
Everyone else, and maybe some of the above, are also already thinking about next year. Can we improve? Can we improve enough? Will the recruits help? What do we have to do to be noisemakers next year?
You think a lot about that kind of things watching Senior Day at various campus locales. You think about what the seniors have meant to the program, how they've grown, and the bonds that have formed for life.
And you wonder how many of the non-seniors won't be on campus long enough to enjoy Senior Day. And it makes it impossible to fully get a handle on next year. Not yet anyway.
As Brother Holthus pointed out here recently, the prospect of a 10-team league next year with a double round-robin schedule is enticing. But as a colleague of mine says, if you want me to tell you who is going to win, you have to tell me who is going to play.
Texas, for instance, said Senior Night goodbyes Monday to Gary Johnson, Dogus Balbay, Jai Lucas and Matt Hill. But in today's one-and-done NCAA, were Austin fans also seeing Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson at home for the last time? How about Perry Jones in Waco or the Morris twins in Lawrence? We could go down the list team-by-team, but you get the idea. It makes planning on next year nearly impossible for fans, and ulcer-inducing for a coach.
There are probably a few Big 12 bets for 2012 that are reasonable, if not safe. Kansas will be good. They always are. Somehow the Aggies will be a contender. Missouri, so young in the important back-court leadership positions, expects to be steadier. And in Ames, they are looking for big things. Five transfers sitting out the year give Iowa State the best scout team in America. With the leadership of Fred Hoiberg and Bobby Lutz, it'll be a surprise if Iowa State isn't a tough, tough, out next year.
After that? Let's get back to each other when we see which players come back to school that have eligibility remaining. In the meantime, enjoy today. The best sporting event in America is right around the corner.
Team Stats Eventually Tell The Truth
February 25, 2011 - Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network
Statistics don't always tell the entire story about a basketball team in a one- or two-game stretch. Just like the day-to-day trading price of a stock or mutual fund doesn't necessarily tell us if it is a successful choice or should not be in an investment portfolio. However, historical returns over several years for stocks through good times and especially how it performs when the overall market struggles tells us much. Similarly, over the course of many games statistics will definitely begin to paint the picture of how a team is performing. In fact, they can tell the truth about where a team's priorities might lie.
In my experience, there are four key concepts that a successful program truly emphasizes. Most times these will help a marginal basketball team become a good basketball team or a good basketball team become a great basketball team. Simply they are (1) Defend; (2) Rebound: (3) Take Care of the Ball and (4) Ball Movement.
To illustrate this point, let's take the top three schools in the current Big 12 standings - Texas (12-1), Kansas (11-2) and Texas A&M (9-4). There are striking similarities in some of the team statistical numbers that clearly show why they have separated themselves from the rest of the league. What a team does in conference play is the most important work that propels you into postseason opportunities. So, the following statistics will be for conference games only.
As you look through these numbers, notice that I do not need to bring up scoring numbers or individual players of these three impressive squads. Reason? Because basketball is a TEAM GAME!
CONCEPT of DEFEND
STAT: SCORING DEFENSE
Big 12 Rank: 1st- Texas, 2nd - Texas A&M, 6th - Kansas
STAT: FG% DEFENSE
Big 12 Rank: 1st - Texas, 2nd- Kansas, 6th - Texas A&M
STAT: LEAST NUMBER OF TEAM FOULS
Big 12 Rank: 1st - Texas, 3rd - Kansas, 4th - Texas A&M
CONCEPT of REBOUND
STAT: REBOUNDING MARGIN
Big 12 Rank: 1st - Texas, 2nd - Kansas, 4th - Texas A&M
CONCEPT of TAKE CARE of the BALL
STAT: TURNOVERS PER GAME
Big 12 Rank: 1st - Texas A&M, 3rd - Texas, 4th - Kansas
CONCEPT of BALL MOVEMENT
STAT: ASSISTS PER GAME
Big 12 Rank: 1st- Kansas, 4th - Texas A&M, 5th - Texas
STAT: FREE THROW ATTEMPT MARGIN
Big 12 Rank: 1st - Texas, 2nd - Texas A&M, 3rd - Kansas
The Y Factor
February 22, 2011 - Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network
In the world of sports, you often hear the term "X-factor" used to describe certain athletes. The X-factors are usually the players with extreme athleticism, skill and ability. They are talked about by fans and feared by opponents. These are typically your "go-to" players and can determine the outcome of a game on any given night. Envied by all, and feared by most is a good definition of those who have the X-factor. But as important as they are, they are not the only ingredient to a team's recipe for success.
X-factors are easily recognized, but there is another force at work when you consider a team's achievement. These are the players who day in and day out dedicate themselves to mastering the intangibles, in order to help their team succeed. We will say they have the "Y-factor"- a consistent dedication to their role on the team, and the ability to get the less recognized jobs done. They are the players who make plays that go unnoticed by fans, but more importantly the "Y-factor" player is WHY a team is good. Their presence may not be felt in the media, but is essential on the court and in subtle ways they make good things happen.
Here is my list of Big 12 players who are worthy of being labeled with Y-factor status:
- Brady Morningstar (Kansas): His role this year has been as a starter or a sixth man, completely depending on the need of the team. He doesn't let that slow him down, as he has a 7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio during Big 12 conference play, and has shot an amazing 63.6 percent (21-of-33) from the 3-point line, the last eight games. Brady also receives Y-factor status for being an outstanding perimeter defender and post passer. His willingness to always make the extra pass does not go unnoticed.
- Dogus Balbay (Texas): Defense is the key to this player being a Y-factor. Although he doesn't excel at shooting, he is arguably the best perimeter defender in the country and contributes to his team by igniting their defensive attack. It is no secret that a stifling defense has been the key to the Longhorns' ascension in the ranks this year. Dogus is relentless on the defense end the entire time he is in the game and his intensity is contagious among his teammates. If that weren't enough to earn him Y-factor status, he is also careful with basketball and is currently the Longhorns' career leader in assist-to-turnover ratio with 280 assists against 116 turnovers (2.41-to-1 ratio) in 88 career games.
- Nathan Walkup (Texas A&M): Nathan is Y-factor caliber because he has a complete understanding of who he is as a basketball player. If you look at his athleticism or skill set you might wonder how he is able to compete at this level, much less be a starter, but he forces coach Turgeon to play him because good things happen when he is on the court. Walkup leads the Aggies in rebounds with 5.8 per game. What impressed me most is how he became the leading rebounder. In the final game of last year, Nathan felt he was getting pushed around too much. Over the summer he dedicated himself to getting bigger and stronger, and came to preseason workouts a new player. His hard work clearly paid off when you look at his production on the court. He is always making big plays and finds himself around the ball at opportune times. Whether his team needs a rebound, someone to take a charge, or a dive for a loose ball, Walkup always seems to be around the action.
- Andre Roberson (Colorado): Andre may be a freshman, but he leads the team in rebounds (7.2 per game), steals (1.4) and blocks (27). If he continues on this pace, he would be one of the best freshmen ever to play for the Buffaloes. What makes this freshman's Y-factor status even more impressive is that he does all the blue collar work coming off the bench. He is a "jack of all trades" doing whatever he can for the team using his athleticism and knack for the finding the ball. His presence on the court allows super sophomore Alec Burks the freedom to display his vast array of offensive moves and is helping coach Tad Boyle bring back the winning ways to the University of Colorado.
- Darion "Jake" Anderson (Iowa State): This is a Y-factor who finds himself on a team with a 1-11 record in Big 12 conference play. However, every team that leaves Ames, Iowa with a win gives a sigh of relief, as it was not easily done. I had to acknowledge Jake, as he is a 6'2", 205 shooting guard who is ranked second in rebounding in the Big 12 with 7.5 per game. Jake is hands down the best rebounding guard in the country. What makes his prowess on the glass all the more amazing is who is ahead of him - Markieff Morris of Kansas, who leads the Big 12 in rebounding, and stands a full eight inches taller than Jake, AND has 40 more pounds of meat on his bones. WOW! I've had numerous Big 12 coaches tell me that his presence accounted for at least nine non-conference wins for Iowa State this year. Rebounding is all will, therefore deserving a Y-factor reward.
- Kim English (Missouri): Expected by many to be the leading scorer coming into this season, Kim is now the team's fourth-leading scorer with 10.5 points per game. Unlike most players who are faced with that scenario, he doesn't try to force the issue offensively. Instead, he has improved other areas of his game like minimizing turnovers (a huge negative last year) and improving his defense, all of which has a positive impact on his team. When a player is looking for his offense the basketball tends to "stick" in his hands, killing the flow of play while severely limiting the offensive options of the team. Kim has learned to accept his role on the team in every situation and MU's 21-6 record reflects that.
February 18, 2011 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network
Let's take a journey into the life of a Big 12 men's basketball coach. We won't start at the beginning of the season. I just want to take a look at a 48-hour period for one coach and one of less than 72 hours for another.
Actor/Comedian Eddie Murphy starred in a very popular movie several years ago entitled, "48 Hours." So let's start with Head Coach Frank Martin of the Kansas State Wildcats. His journey began in the mountains of Colorado against the Buffaloes. On a night where both teams struggled to put the ball in the basket, his team had just one second to save the day. Down by two with just that one second to go, Coach Martin designed a play that eventually wound up in the hands of Rodney McGruder. He put up a guarded shot from outside the arc, and it swished! Winner, winner, chicken dinner! But wait a second…after further review the shot was ruled (correctly) no good. It left McGruder's hand a split second too late. That instant cost the Wildcats the game. To compound things, K-State had less than 48 hours to lick their wounds and get ready for their archrival. The Kansas Jayhawks were next on the docket. Kansas climbed to No. 1 in the polls earlier in the day. Very few gave the Wildcats a fighting chance against the mighty Jayhawks. Even though this game was played at home and in the "Octagon of Doom," K-State was an underdog. This time, no last second heroics were necessary. The 'Cats controlled the game from start to finish and beat KU by 16 points. Jacob Pullen played the best game of his career, pouring in 38 points. An interesting 48 hours - - where Kansas State experienced the "Agony of Defeat" AND "The Thrill of Victory."
The other journey belongs to that of the aforementioned Colorado Buffaloes. While hosting Texas A&M, Head Coach Tad Boyle had to go up against his friend and mentor, Mark Turgeon. Both played at Kansas, and then later coached together. This game was going to be no fun for either of them. At the end of the day, Colorado led by three at the end of regulation. But the Aggies hit a 3-pointer and sent the game into overtime, where they would overcome a distraught Buffalo team. Now, flash forward less than 72 hours. Coach Boyle said if he were in a similar circumstance, he would foul the opposing player. That's exactly what transpired against their next opponent, Kansas State. With CU winning by three points, the Buffs fouled Jacob Pullen and sent him to the line. Pullen hit the first to get the Wildcats within two and then intentionally missed the second. The rebound eventually went out of bounds and gave K-State a chance to not only send the game into an extra session, but also win it in regulation. As we mentioned, it didn't work out for the Wildcats. But now what will the strategy be? One thing we know for sure, there are no sure things.
So you want to be a coach? You'd better bring a big supply of heart and ulcer medication, you're going to need it. These guys go through more in a season, even in 48 hours, than Eddie Murphy went through in his movie. I have so much respect for all of the coaches out there that put their careers, reputations and livelihoods on the line each and every season.
Tough And Gritty
February 15, 2011 - Doug Bell, Big 12 Network
Sometimes things come together in sports for no other reason except maybe the stars were aligned or as my old high school coach used to tell us, just dumb luck. I'm not sure either is a perfect way to describe the success the Texas Longhorns are having in men's basketball this season, but considering where this team was picked or not picked in October, it's clear they are one of the top stories in all of college hoops this season.
I'm a basketball junkie and love to watch old games on ESPN Classic. The other day, they were replaying the Florida Gators national championship win over UCLA in 2006. The Gators, coached by Billy Donovan, weren't ranked before that season and they exceeded everyone's expectations including their own. The more I watched the more I was drawn to this year's Texas Longhorns.
Following last year's collapse and early exit in the NCAA Tourney, the Longhorns were expected to rebuild this season. Now they're on the verge of an undefeated regular season, something only the 2002 Kansas Jayhawks were able to do in Big 12 play. The Longhorns have done it the old fashioned way - by smashing teams on the defensive end. They lead the conference in field percentage defense (holding teams to 36 percent from the field and an incredible 23 percent from 3-point range) and rebounding, which is a lethal combination. In other words, they are forcing teams to take bad and contested shots, snaring the defensive rebound and holding their opponents on the average to a meager 54 points per game. Somewhere above coaches Wooden, Iba, Rupp, Haskins and others are sitting around a projector toasting the 'Horns for their defensive prowess.
They also have something last year's star-studded bunch didn't have and that's strong, quiet, and humble leaders like Gary Johnson and Dogus Balbay, who lead this team both on and off the court. If you watch these guys at practice or in a game during a timeout, it is obvious their teammates respond to them. In my mind, Jordan Hamilton is the best all-around player in the country. Where did this metamorphosis come from? A year ago, he was described as selfish and self-absorbed, a guy who simply wouldn't listen to his coaches. In hindsight, maybe it wasn't him at all; maybe he just needed a different mix of players around him. It's so much fun watching a kid with his talent play with passion on both ends of the floor.
Every great team has to have an eccentric touch. J'Covan Brown must drive his coaches crazy at times with some of his on the court antics, but offensively he is a threat from anywhere and provides a serious spark off the bench. Rick Barnes certainly deserves credit for this turnaround but he deflects the credit to others. I've always considered him one of the best coaches in the country without a national title on his resume (a dubious distinction, like the best golfer without a major), but I think opportunity is knocking louder than ever before.
With three road games remaining on the regular season, there's a chance the Longhorns could get clipped at some point, but I'm not betting on it. This team has a focus and synergy that I've never seen at Texas since I've been covering the league. They have depth and a killer instinct that you need to go far in the NCAA Tournament and with a No. 1 seed awaiting, a serious run in postseason play is inevitable. Again, like those Florida teams I mentioned before, the Longhorns have a special chemistry. Every time someone mentions their shortcomings - like a lack of consistent outside shooting - I pop in the DVD and marvel at their special efforts on the defensive end.
Last Saturday on the Big 12 Network, KU head coach Bill Self told us in an interview after the game (in response to his team being named the No. 1 squad in the country) - "We're probably not the best team in our conference, Texas kicked our butts right here (in our building)".
I remember the last time I was in Austin I stopped by my favorite Tex Mex restaurant and ordered a bowl of atomic hot chili. When the waitress asked me how I liked it, I responded (after a gallon of ice water) "tough and gritty". Come to think of it, those are perfect ways to describe this Texas basketball team and I've got a feeling it's on the menu at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Can We Have A Rematch?
February 11, 2011 - Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network
Okay, so I wasn't able to schedule what would be the biggest February game in college basketball this year, but the thought of a Kansas-Texas rematch got me excited for Big 12 basketball NEXT YEAR!
The marquee college basketball games of February 2012 could very well be the "rematches" involving Big 12 teams. Next year, the Conference will play a full round-robin basketball schedule with 10 member schools. That ensures that each team in the Big 12 will play a home-and-home with every other school in the league. Big 12 fans are yearning this year for a rematch of the Jayhawks and Longhorns, a Texas A&M return visit to Missouri or Kansas State returning a game against Baylor. Those fans will have to wait a year, but imagine the excitement that awaits next February.
The new Big 12 will be the only "Power Six" conference that will have the complete round-robin format - making it attractive for the complete attention of those who follow college basketball. The Pac-10 scheduling format will be similar to the current Big East template. All of the Pac 10 schools will play each other once with "double" games against natural rivals (i.e. California-Stanford, Washington-Washington State) and six other league schools on a rotating basis. It could preclude a big time rematch game depending on the scheduling rotation.
The Big East currently follows a similar format with SIXTEEN member schools. That setup prevents a Pitt revenge game with Notre Dame this year or a Villanova return game with Georgetown.
The Big Ten, SEC and ACC will play in divisional scheduling formats similar to the one used now by the Big 12.
That makes the Big 12 with their tradition-laden programs and spirited rivalries the most attractive February league next year for college basketball fans, television partners and media who cover the game.
I can't guarantee a Kansas-Texas rematch this year, not even in Kansas City at the Big 12 Championship, but I can GUARANTEE it next year. That is why the NEW Big 12 has a great opportunity to be the most intriguing February league in all of college basketball in 2012.
February 8, 2011 - Reid Gettys, Big 12 Network
I started my first blog of the season with the quote, "old men look to the past, young men look to the future, but Champions look at the present." I then proceeded with a "preview" of our conference headed into league play. Today, I want to look at the present, but this time with an eye to the future.
There certainly can be exceptions, however the simple to articulate, but extremely difficult to execute, formula for receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament is to have a winning record at home and split your road games. With a conference RPI expected to be in the top three, there is no doubt that Big 12 teams finishing at .500 will be included in this year's tournament. Therefore, I will revise the formula slightly to also include teams with inverse records … 5-3, 3-5 and 6-2, 2-6 (as a side note, I will leave my arguments for the worthiness of our 7-9 teams for another day).
Within the context of this revised formula, how's your team doing? Are you on pace to be at least 5-3 at home and no worse than 4-4 on the road or is your record shaping out to look like a reflection in a mirror? Finish 9-7 or 8-8 in our league, there will be no bubbles, you will love discussions about resumes, and you can start calling into your favorite radio shows arguing about seeding, because you will be dancing!
Dave Armstrong's last blog drove home the point about the importance of winning on the road, especially for the middle of the pack teams, the ones not likely to finish 8-0 and/or 7-1 at home. The only two teams with winning records on the road are Texas and Kansas. Clearly, there has been some separation between the Longhorns and Jayhawks and the rest of the conference. If seeding were to be determined today, both would be deserving of No. 1 seeds. Out of the next eight teams in the standings with winning records at home (Baylor, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Colorado, and Nebraska), only Baylor has won more than one game on the road, and only A&M has lost more than one game at home. Missouri, Oklahoma State and Nebraska have yet to get a road win. In the second half of conference play, road wins will go from important into the "must win" category. In the next two weeks, if you want to gauge the amount of anxiety that is appropriate, keep your eye on the "Away" column of the conference standings!
To say that Texas has bounced back from a disastrous season last year would be the understatement of the year. What a story the Longhorns have been so far this season! I cannot remember a more dominant defensive team in the Big 12. The Horns have held seven of eight Big 12 opponents to under 40 percent shooting from the field. Texas is also limiting opponents to just 22 percent from 3-point range in conference play. Opponents are averaging less than 55 points.....absolutely dominating statistics. As a result, the Longhorns are 8-0 and have beaten every opponent by 11 points or more. Considering Texas was not ranked to start to the season, Rick Barnes is currently the runaway favorite for National Coach of the Year.
I have been intrigued to watch the ever-changing dynamics in Manhattan. No one in the country has received as much criticism as Kansas State and Michigan State, both of whom started the season ranked in the top five. Michigan State is, uncharacteristically, not showing any signs of fight and there is no reason to anticipate that the Spartans are going to bounce back. Kansas State is another story. Reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated! As bad as things have been for Frank Martin's squad, they are sitting one game out of third place in the standings and have won three out of their last four with a very realistic shot of winning four of the next five. Two weeks from today, the Wildcats could be 8-6 and have already punched their ticket! One last thought about K-State - never underestimate the potential of "addition by subtraction". Roles become clearer, distractions become fewer and departures of disgruntled players who did not play up to expectations can have a unifying and bonding affect on the remaining players. Frank Martin has done a very good job of adapting and adjusting. Confidence and momentum are what February and March are all about!
If I were to give out Midseason Awards ...
|Players of the Year:||Jordan Hamilton and Marcus Morris.|
|Defensive Player of the Year:||Dogus Balbay (National Defensive Player of the Year)|
|Freshmen of the Year:||Perry Jones and Tristan Thompson.|
|Newcomer of the Year:||Ricardo Ratliffe.|
|Most Improved:||No way I am picking this one, too many candidates at this point! (Fitzgerald, Denmon, Middleton, Hamilton....)|
|Coach of the Year:||Rick Barnes (National Coach of the Year)|
On The Road Again ...
February 4, 2011 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network
Life on the road in the Big 12 is not peaceful. It is not for the faint of heart. It can be a place where some dreams vanish.
Life on the road in the Big 12 can mean peril, struggle, failure, pain and suffering. That is, unless you are among the elite. Then life on the road can be extremely rewarding. The road has divided the haves and the have-nots since the beginning of Conference play. It is what separates the teams into distinct categories. And this year is no different. One glance at the Big 12 standings will tell you all you need to know about the travails of playing away from your own fans. Away from those who support you, who urge you on, away from familiar surroundings.
There are two teams who have distanced themselves from the other 10, and they've done it by finding success away from home. The Texas Longhorns and the Kansas Jayhawks are the top two teams in the Conference, and both are undefeated on the road in league play. There isn't another team that is even .500 away from their home court. So what's the formula for success? Find a way to win in someone else's arena. I know that's easier said than done, but it's the path you must take for victory.
My partner, Reid Gettys, told me that when he played for Houston, back when they dominated college basketball in the Phi Slamma Jamma era, the team fed off the energy of the road. They welcomed the boo's and jeers from the opposing crowds. It was like music in their ears. It gave them great delight to quiet those crowds.
I suspect Texas and Kansas are no different. Each team will get their opponent's best effort and the effort of the fans as well. I've seen it over and over again. When a great team comes into the forum of their foes, the fans really let them have it. Instead of shrinking back from the challenge, these teams embrace it. Instead of being intimidated, they take the fight to their opponent. And in the process, they turn a raucous crowd into a something that resembles meditation. The Longhorns and the Jayhawks didn't just win on the road this week; they put on clinics of victorious basketball. With stifling defense and efficient offense, they attacked their opponents with surgical precision. When the dust had settled, they left a bunch of head-scratching fans in their wake.
By contrast, teams that drop in the standings are the one's who struggle away from home. They don't embrace the challenge. It's been a tried and true formula, if you want to be crowned champion, you must earn your way by finding success on the road. It's a tough path, but one that has great rewards for the teams that accept the challenge. Texas and Kansas have not only accepted that challenge, but they've embraced it. As a result, you'll find them once again in the driver's seat.
Studying The Stat Sheet: A Coaches' Perspective
February 2, 2011 - Rich Zvosec, Big 12 Network
When it comes to analyzing numbers, an accountant has nothing on the number-crunching coaches in the Big 12. Whereas fans and players primarily look at points and rebounds, the coaches around the league have their own view on what areas and corresponding numbers are determining factors in their team's success or failure.
So turn on your calculator, get out your slide rule and prepare to take a look behind the numbers on a stat sheet as critiqued by your favorite coach.
In Lawrence, Kansas coach Bill Self seeks to identify how hard his team is performing. Not only does he look at defensive field goal percentage (which he believes should be no higher than 36 percent), but he also wants to know the percentage of missed shots that turn into offensive rebounds. For example, if an opponent misses 40 shots, but gets 20 offensive rebounds, that means you are not playing very good defense.
Another defensive minded coach, Mike Anderson, charts deflections as a method to see if his team's pressure style is effective. As a result of numerous deflections the Tigers are in the top 10 in steals. Contrast that with Nebraska's style of half-court gritty defense - where Coach Doc Sadler keeps track of how many times the ball is touched in the paint through post-ups, drives or second shots. He feels that if you can limit an opponent to fewer than 30 touches in the paint for the game and have more transition baskets than the opposing team, you are more likely to come out on top.
Not surprisingly, Texas A&M and Colorado look at similar stats. Both Coach Tad Boyle and Mark Turgeon played for Larry Brown (coaching together) and have adopted many of his ways to measure success. Both analyze the opponents field goal percentage (keep it under 40 percent), rebound margin and turnover margin (assist-to-turnovers). Coach Turgeon will also look to spark his team defensively during a game by challenging them to make multiple stops (three in a row). Multiple stops executed multiple times during a game means success. Coach Boyle tries to keep it simple as well. He charts layups given up (less than 10 is the goal) and shots contested. As he says, "contesting shots will always make the opponents shooting percentage go down."
Coach Drew at Baylor will look first at his team's assist-to-turnover ratio to judge his team's ball handling, while Kansas State Coach Frank Martin tracks assists to baskets made on offense. They both feel these are true indicators to their team's unselfishness. By no coincidence, Coach Martin also emphasizes rebounding, especially on the offensive end. It certainly shows in their style of play and on the stat sheet at the end of the night.
Oklahoma Coach Jeff Capel wants his team to have single-digit turnovers; therefore they chart them in practice. To reinforce this point, players will run for committing them in practice. Also, this year they have charted how many post touches that Andrew Fitzgerald has each game as one of the factors in measuring their offensive efficiency.
In Stillwater, Coach Ford charts rebound margin, deflections, shot challenges and assist-to-turnover ratio. The Cowboys staff will scour the opponent stat sheets to determine who they should go after on the defensive end from a ball-handling standpoint. Coach Pat Knight gives his Red Raiders specific numbers to go after each game. For Tech, 3-point defensive field goal percentage should be 30 percent, while overall defensive field goal percentage should be 35 percent. Offensively, he challenges his team to shoot 45 percent or better from the floor and at least 35 percent from 3-point territory.
Coach Hoiberg at Iowa State will chart defensive field goal percentage, but they also keep a Defensive Possession chart that includes a comment column. Not only do they keep score for each possession, but they also determine whether or not it was a good possession. He feels since there are many times in a game you play good defense, but the opponent still scores a player should not be negatively critiqued for playing good defense on a score. This chart also helps them determine whether to change defenses or stay with it what they are playing.
Obviously, the most important number on a stat sheet is to score more points than your opponent. But the key question is how a team gets that result. As you can tell by now, there are many ways to break down a game and each coach has his own points of emphasis as taught to his team. So, next time your team plays - chart what your coach deems important and see how it translates into wins and losses.
These Games Matter
January 28, 2011 - Brad Sham, Big 12 Network
The professional folks in all the major team sports have a saying about exhibition (uh, excuse me, preseason) games: They don't count, but they matter (actually the baseball people have the good sense to call their spring training games exhibitions - thank them for that. But we digress).
The people who have to find something wrong with everything complain about regular-season college basketball by saying nothing's important until the postseason tournaments. I've heard some of my media brethren refer snarkily to regular season college basketball as "exhibition basketball."
For those of us who love the game the way it is, this is at the very least a point of contention.
No question most folks pay attention in a different way as March approaches. The object of the sport is to get into the tournaments and be in position to cut down the nets. The impending Super Bowl reminds us that we're getting close to one of our nation's greatest sports obsessions, March Madness. The closer we get, the more we hear about things like RPI and seeding. So let's not pretend that postseason tournament basketball isn't one of the best parts of the season.
But what happens between now and then is part of the fabric of that early spring tapestry. We may not be at the halfway point of the conference schedule, but even if what we like best is March, pretending that what happens now isn't a big deal is like saying what your kids do between the ages of 7 and 12 is just marking time, because it's adulthood that matters. Please.
Last week I ran into a friend who is athletic director at a major university NOT in the Big 12. He's also on the men's basketball committee. Those people, the folks who set the field for March, are out looking at games all over the country right now. There must be a reason.
One of the things some of us like most about collegiate sports is that in fact, not every team starts a season with the same goals. If you're an NFL team, there's only one reason you even go to camp. The Packers and Steelers are the only ones who reached that goal this year.
The fact is, not every college basketball team starts the season with the expectation of making it to the Final Four. It may be everyone's hope. But more Big 12 teams, for instance, have a reasonable expectation of making that happen than from many smaller conferences.
Last week I had a chance to work a game in a so-called mid-major conference. One of the coaches had been a Power Six head coach once upon a time and he admitted back then, he coached his team to try to get to the Final Four. Now, in different circumstances, he was telling his student-athletes to dream about getting better every day, winning their conference tournament, making it to the NCAAs and maybe winning some there. THOSE are reasonable expectations.
The games that are being played right now are the steps along that path. You simply cannot build a penthouse without putting in the foundation.
Seasons are like little lives. They're not to be summed up and evaluated in the middle of them. But every step along the way is an irreplaceable experience. You don't have a March without January and February.
Kansas may not have enjoyed losing to Texas last week. But if you don't think Bill Self will use that game to help his team realize the potential potholes along the way, you're not paying attention. Texas may do greater things than expected, and if they do, Rick Barnes will use that game to remind his young men what they're capable of achieving.
No one knows how Texas Tech will finish the season. But winning their last two games lets Pat Knight remind his team how they CAN play. He can tell his Red Raiders to forget about starting 0-4 and look at the standings and realize they are one game behind fifth-place Baylor, which last year wound up in the Elite Eight.
Does that mean Tech is going there? No. It means that one of the great lessons the teachers who are coaches can dispense is that the journey is what matters, and how it goes is up to you.
Don't let anyone tell you to look down your nose at regular season college games. They count. And they matter.
Junior College Renaissance
January 25, 2011 - Mitch Holthus, Big 12 Network
Really? It's a common response to a little known or ignored fact. It's also the response when you tell a die-hard Big 12 basketball fan that in six of the first nine years of league existence, the all-conference first team featured a junior college transfer.
Really? Players like Oklahoma's Corey Brewer and Taj Gray, Oklahoma State's Tony Allen or Iowa State's Jamaal Tinsley made a HUGE impact on the Big 12 Conference.
Could those days be returning? Conversely, there have been no junior college transfers make the All-Big 12 First Team since 2005. In fact, the talent in junior colleges dwindled when prospective student-athletes started using loopholes in the NCAA eligibility requirements. One of the biggest loopholes was using "prep" schools to gain eligibility and keep five years available for four years of playing basketball at the school of their choice. In addition, the prospective student athlete could actually get older and stronger and essentially get additional "redshirt" years at the prep school without losing any years of eligibility at a four-year school.
The eligibility rules changed in April 2007 and closed the loopholes. The result has been the increased role of junior colleges in college basketball recruiting, the Big 12 included. Below is a list of some junior college players to follow this season to measure their impact on their respective teams and the Big 12 Conference:
- Ricardo Ratliffe, Missouri (National JC Player of the Year)
- Matt Pressey, Missouri/Navarro CC
- Jean-Paul Olukemi, Oklahoma State/Vincennes (22pts, 11rb vs. K-State on the Big 12 opening weekend)
- Jamie Vanderbeken, Iowa State/Tyler CC
The sidebar to this discussion is that most of the top junior college basketball programs are located in the BIG 12 STATES. Overall, Texas has 35 junior colleges, Kansas has 21, Missouri and Iowa have 14 each and Oklahoma has 11 and most of those schools play high-level junior college basketball. Moreover, the National Junior College Athletic Association Tournament is held each March in Hutchinson, Kansas and is a pilgrimage for almost all of the NCAA Division I college basketball coaches and programs.
Prep schools are still being used for prospective student-athletes, but they are being used differently. The rules have mandated the change and there is an increased accountability and scrutiny of those prep schools. The days of the "diploma mill" prep schools are all but over.
I've talked to most head coaches in the Big 12 about this topic and the consensus is that the junior college basketball talent is increasing again. One coach stated that "it might not ever reach the glory days of the 80's and 90's in terms of talent, but it's coming back."
We will monitor the Big 12 junior college impact players for the next couple of years and if there is indeed a renaissance of big-time basketball talent, then I'll save you a seat in Hutchinson with the rest of the Big 12 and Division I coaches.
No Easy Games In The Big 12
January 21, 2011 - Stephen Howard, Big 12 Network
This year, just like in recent years, the Big 12 has brought us some exciting basketball every week with buzzer-beaters and fantastic finishes. If you look at the standings, you will notice some of the usual suspects rounding out the top field with Kansas taking the top spot followed by Texas, Colorado then Missouri. Wait a second…did I just say Colorado in the third position with a 3-1 record?
Yes, I know that conference play has just started, and four games into it is no time to crown a champion, but it is enough time to spot a trend. And the one thing that just JUMPS out at me like Blake Griffin on a fast-break is the fact that the teams that have in recent years resided in that bottom portion of the standings, are now in very different positions.
Last season, the Big 12 sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament. If the early standings are any indication of future performance, which is a possibility, you could potentially have two new teams in the field of 68 at the end of the season in Colorado and Nebraska - with Iowa State knocking on the door. If you look at these teams, they are showing early that, unlike previous years, you are in for a long night when you play them.
Colorado, who is 3-1 in conference play, has earned that stellar record playing against some of the top teams in the Big 12. On January 18, they lost to Nebraska on the road in a game that went down to the wire. Before that, they Buffs beat Missouri, Kansas State and Oklahoma State - three schools that former coach Jeff Bzdelik didn't defeat at any point while the coach at CU.
Yes, Colorado beat Kansas State without their best post player in Curtis Kelly, but this is the same Kansas State team everyone picked to challenge Kansas for the Big 12 throne. Fans in Boulder are starting to catch on as well, as they had their first sellout of the season when they defeated Oklahoma State. You put superstar Alec Burks and Co. - surrounded by energized fans and that mile high altitude to drain you physically and mentally - and that looks to me like a recipe for a loss.
Nebraska at 2-2 who has long been a top defensive team seems to be coming together just at the right time. Just ask the Kansas Jayhawks who sneaked out of Lincoln by three points. Doc Sadler's team, who two years ago was the shortest team in Division I, looks this year to be tall on talent behind guard Lance Jeter and big man Jorge Brian Diaz.
And lastly, former Iowa State player turned head coach Fred Hoiberg is showing everyone that he didn't just come home to coach…but to win. After his hire, Coach Hoiberg, who is fondly referred to as "The Mayor" by locals, implored Iowa State fan base for the need to bring back the Hilton Magic that regularly ran through parquet floors of Hilton Coliseum. If you saw the home game versus Baylor, ranked in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll earlier this year, they might need to change coach Hoiberg's nickname to "Merlin" over "the Mayor" for the magic he helped conjure in Hilton Coliseum.
The Cyclones not only beat the Bears, but almost sent them home "declawed" winning by an impressive 15 points. Led by senior point guard Diante Garret, ISU has used an impressive 13-2 pre-Big 12 conference record to give them confidence. While typing this I am watching Iowa State play Oklahoma State on the road. Even though they eventually lost the game in overtime, I noticed that this Cyclone squad is playing road games in the Big 12 expecting to win, not trying to win. That's a big difference and one that the other teams and their coaches better take note of.
These three teams show more than ever that games are played and won on the court and not on paper. And unlike in years past, you better bring your "A " game because anything less will surely result in a loss. There is no such thing as a "bop game" in the Big 12 as all 12 squads are playing Big. It's going to be interesting to see how the rest of this season plays out, and I'm so fortunate to have a front row seat for it all!
Not The Usual Suspects
January 18, 2011 - Brad Sham, Big 12 Network
Depth is where you find it. The Big 12 is finding it in places some folks might call unexpected.
Astoundingly, since it feels like fall practice just started, most teams will reach the one-quarter pole of their conference schedules this weekend. The standings in January don't mean much about what they'll look like in March, except as indicators. The indicators say the Big 12 is as deep as ever, and maybe better than it's been in awhile.
It's usually instructive, once competition has begun, to go back and look at preseason prognostications. It's a wonderfully humbling exercise.
Three months ago, in early October, Big 12 men's coaches were polled about the predicted order of finish. Turns out sometimes some of them don't know much more than us railbirds.
We're a long way from conclusions, but the coaches picked Kansas to finish second in the league, behind Kansas State. That still might happen. But if anyone saw the Jayhawks in Waco on Monday night, you'd have a hard time figuring who was going to beat them. And after the Wildcats' Monday afternoon loss at Missouri, one might be advised not to bring up the preseason polls to Coach Frank Martin in Manhattan.
Here's the thing about that, though: probably most people in the league expect the 'Cats to be right back in the thick of things by the time the next two months roll by and postseason destinations are determined. And that only shows how solid the Big 12 is again in 2011.
Not to dwell on the preseason polling, but Texas A&M was picked in the middle of the pack, a sixth-place finisher. Who thinks there's anything average about the way the Aggies have played? They have showed versatility, toughness and resilience. Their games with Texas and K-State this week will be highly anticipated.
Some things, of course, are predictable, like Kansas being a national contender. It's a pretty good guess that by March, Kansas State will be someone you don't want to play. Check that. It won't take till March. They're that way now. They're just a little more ornery because of their early season missteps. Texas has been consistently good for awhile, and they are again. And Baylor, Monday night notwithstanding, showed the country last March there was exciting, explosive basketball being played in Waco, too.
Missouri, since Mike Anderson has been the coach in Columbia, has been a toothache to play. The Tigers are a regular March player, looking at the moment for the consistency to be a steady contender. They were a top five pick and that's exactly where they are now.
By March, the country could be talking about the Aggies the way they were about Baylor last year. There's nothing about this A&M team that doesn't look built to last.
And there are also a couple of pleasant surprises, teams that add to the league's excellent depth. These are the ones we know about who follow the Big 12, and the ones it's incumbent on us to remind the rest of the country not to forget when they identify the league as Kansas, Kansas State and Texas.
The Aggies, Missouri and Baylor are some of those. Let's not forget Nebraska. Somehow Doc Sadler always seems to field a team that's hard to play and competitive, and he has again.
And the league's new coaches are getting involved.
Fred Hoiberg has people paying attention to his alma mater at Iowa State. Hilton Magic is as vibrant as ever. The coaches picked the Cyclones deep in the league basement. They're way, way above that. There may be no better example of the Big 12's improved depth.
Except one. I had the privilege of being at Coors Arena in Boulder last Saturday with Jon Sundvold to experience an afternoon sellout that turned Colorado's arena into a thunderous, big time basketball experience for their win over Oklahoma State. Not many people may have noticed, since it was exactly opposite the thrilling A&M-Missouri overtime heartstopper. But get ready, Big 12. Coach Tad Boyle has the Buffaloes loaded for Bear. And Aggie and Tiger and Cowboy. Who knows, maybe even for Jayhawk...
It's early, but the depth in the Big 12 looks better than ever. And it's not all the usual suspects.
The Right Stuff
January 14, 2011 - Doug Bell, Big 12 Network
Sometimes I wonder when a coaching hire is announced, if the new man on campus is a good fit for the school. Does he have the right stuff to ignite and solidify the fan base? Can he get all the various factions, boosters and alumni working on the same page?
I remember vividly calling a Missouri game five years ago, the first year Mike Anderson was on the job for the Tigers. He had come from UAB with outstanding credentials, but there were still plenty of people questioning if he was the right man for the job. An elderly lady showed up at the announcing table two hours before the game, in hopes of leaving a candy bar for my partner and former Missouri legend, Jon Sundvold. While we waited for Jon's arrival (I asked her if she had another Hershey bar), I wanted to know what she thought of her new head coach. She explained that she loved Missouri basketball, had been watching it for 45 years, but wasn't quite sure he was the right man for the job. She wasn't a fan of his run-and-gun offense and wasn't certain he could sign the elite players to compete with the likes of Kansas, Texas, and all the other Big 12 power programs. She was a Bob Huggins fan and was really hoping he would take over (Huggins was available at the time).
I first met Mike Anderson when he was playing point guard for the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, coached by the legendary Nolan Richardson. I was the play-by-play guy for Illinois State University (the late great Bob Frederick hired me before he went to Kansas) and the two programs were big rivals in the Missouri Valley Conference. Anderson was a tough hombre, who specialized in getting up in the grill of the man he was guarding. He ran the Tulsa offense with efficiency and he was really smart. He helped Tulsa to an NIT title and an NCAA berth in his two years.
Shortly after, he became an assistant at Tulsa and then followed Coach Richardson to Arkansas. When I took a television job in Birmingham, Alabama, I made it a point to talk with Mike whenever he came back to his hometown for the SEC tourney. He was an outstanding assistant coach, and at the end of Richardson's run in Fayetteville, he was doing more and more coaching during the game.
A move to become head coach at UAB was a no-brainer both for him and the school. An upset of top-ranked Kentucky back in the 2004 NCAA Tourney sent shock waves through the college basketball world. I enjoyed following Mike once again, and we even played golf together. This guy is a competitor and if he was teeing it up, he was going to make the most of it.
Mike Anderson was not a heavily recruited player himself, but the one thing he learned from his mentor is that there are good players all over the place. Just because they're not being talked about in all the recruiting blogs doesn't mean they can't play and compete at the highest level (check out the name of Al Dillard, a key member of the 1994 National Championship Hogs team who Mike somehow found toiling in a small Alabama junior college).
He brought that same intensity and philosophy to Columbia, and has quietly molded this Missouri program into one of the best in the Big 12. If you ever have a chance to watch a practice, it's clear who is in charge. There isn't any yelling or profanity, just a teacher at work, getting the complete attention and respect from his players. I remember talking with Hall of Famer Eddie Sutton about Anderson's offense when UAB hosted Oklahoma State a few years ago. There's much more to it than meets the eye.
This year's Missouri team is a mixture of his recruiting finds and some highly touted players. At last year's Big 12 Championship, he talked with me at length about incoming freshman Phil Pressey, grinning from ear to ear. There's no question the program is on solid ground and it's clear that Anderson was the right guy, at the right time, for Missouri.
I hope to see that Missouri fan again this season and hopefully she'll still be handing out the chocolate bars. Winning makes everything taste really sweet!
January 11, 2011 - Bryndon Manzer, Big 12 Network
Once again the time for Big 12 foes to start beating up on each other has begun. I watched every Big 12 game this past weekend and in doing so the same questions occurred to me as they do every year early in conference play. "How will this team handle success?" How will that team handle challenges or adversity?" This I know, both of these scenarios are surely to come in many forms for all teams. It is always interesting to study a team's battle with the highs and lows of the 16-game grind of Big 12 Conference schedule.
Without question I have learned that the teams who are the most mentally tough and consistent in what they do (style of play) will ultimately survive and maximize their potential as well as overcome challenges. Coaches hope their players are driven by the challenges that face them. Every NCAA team has them, including all 12 programs in our league. Here are challenges for six squads in the Big 12 conference to ponder - all of which can be overcome if the players will trust their respective coaches.
To make a similar run in the postseason as they did last year by improving game management from their guards.
The Bears opened up conference play with a nice win on the road in Lubbock. Scott Drew's team is obviously loaded with talent - led by LaceDarius Dunn - and it is difficult to attack their zone because of their length and athleticism. However, many games in league play are won or lost in the final minutes and most often directed by the decisions of the point guard. Last season, Tweety Carter was possibly the best playmaker in the Big 12 with the ability to create and score, but he also understood time and score. A.J. Walton and Dunn need to improve in this area for another deep run in March.
Improving on last year's six wins in conference play and even potentially flirting with an NCAA bid.
The Buffs opened up with an impressive win over Missouri on their home floor Saturday. In fact, this was the first conference opening victory for them since the 1996-97 season. They have two of the league's best in Alec Burks and Cory Higgins, but the duo can't win games alone. Will the supporting cast step up on a consistent basis as they did against the Tigers in the 89-76 win?
Kansas State's Challenge
Shortening the offensive droughts that occur within their games.
In a December 18 loss to Florida, K-State's defense was definitely good enough to win. However, the offense was not. A stretch where they were 1-for-20 (5 percent!) would cost any team a game. Saturday's loss in Stillwater ended with a 35-13 run by the Cowboys over the final 10 minutes. Jacob Pullen and company have to execute better in the half-court set. Because they typically defend and rebound at a high level, they don't need to be great offensively to win games, only more consistent.
Becoming a better rebounding team.
On Saturday, Colorado outrebounded Missouri by 14. The Tigers are a really good team and will have a good season - but if they want to get a top four seed in the NCAA's in March they must get it done on the glass. This can be a little misleading, because sometimes their rebounding discrepancy lends to the up tempo style of Mike Anderson's teams. Even though the Tigers advanced to the second round of the tourney a year ago, they still needed to improve on last season when MU finished 11th in the conference in rebounding margin. The addition of Ricardo Ratliffe has helped some, but this is still a challenge. All five players on the floor, including the guards, will have to step up in this area.
Getting better defensively whether in man or zone.
Everyone knew Jeff Capel's team would be a little short-handed this season and understandably so after dealing with some selfish players a year ago. Coach Capel will have Oklahoma back in the future. However, this season he has limited depth and not quite enough game changers. The Sooners can still be competitive if the players will commit to the defensive end. They need to be a gritty team and that traditionally shows up when guarding the opponent. Coach Capel has been stressing this to his players, but they haven't consistently bought in yet.
Oklahoma State's Challenge
Playing two smaller guards significant minutes in the backcourt.
Let me make it clear that Ray Penn and Keiton Page can obviously play at this level and both need to be on the court for the Cowboys. Each of them has had continual improvement under Travis Ford - including defensively. However, even if both are in correct defensive position, there is potential for bigger guards in the Big 12 to take advantage of their size - both are 5-9, which might be a tad generous! Coach Ford has and will need to continue to mix things up defensively to allow them to be on the court together as much as possible.
The Journey To Become Champions Begins
January 7, 2011 - Reid Gettys, Big 12 Network
As the expression goes, "old men look to the past, young men look to the future, but Champions look at the present." Whether you are old or young, the journey to becoming Champions of the Big 12 begins this weekend. Heading into conference play, the Big 12 leads the nation in non-conference winning percentage, wins per team, and has the nation's best record against top 25 opponents. Half of the conference is ranked in the top 40 of the RPI and for the third consecutive year, the Big 12 is again ranked in the top 3 of conference RPI's. The NCAA selection committee has de-emphasized from consideration teams that get on a late season roll in their last 10 games, so starting this weekend, all games are equal in importance. The formula for dancing in March is not complicated - finish conference play at .500 or better. If you don't want to listen to all of our "bubble blabber" the last week of the season, split your games on the road and have a winning record at home and you are in! In a conference like ours, if you are not ready to "get after it" right out of the gate, you are going to dig a hole that you will not be able to climb out of.
I understand that picking preseason polls is entertaining and provides for some lively debate, however, anyone who picked someone other than Kansas to be the early season favorites is either picking with their hearts or has not been paying attention to the dominance that has been the Kansas Jayhawks. When you have won six consecutive conference titles, you are the big dog and you will remain the big dog, until/unless somebody stands up and knocks you off! I had a chance to see KU the other night and WOW! Marcus Morris is playing as well as anybody in the country (not named Kemba Walker) and his twin, Markieff might be the early season favorite to win Most Improved Player. This current Jayhawk team is balanced (six players average between 10-16 points) and they are deep (bench is averaging 34+ points per game). Bill Self would probably shoot me for this, so let's keep this just between us … the Jayhawks are more talented than any team in America, including Duke.
If early in the season, you were looking for the most likely candidate to knock KU off of its perch, without a doubt, Kansas State would have been the most logical choice. Count me as one of the observers who was/is curious to see how the Wildcats would respond to so much early season love! When you think of Frank Martin and his program, what are your immediate thoughts? I think of a team that plays with an enormous chip on their shoulder and with a tremendous amount of passion (anger?). If I was coaching at one of the other 11 schools, I would have petitioned the NCAA to waive the suspensions of Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly. I read something from Jacob yesterday wherein he was comparing himself to Michael Vick in that everybody was now against him and he had to prove the world wrong! Set aside for a moment that I could not disagree more with his internal assessment, that is not the point. The point is that the Wildcats now have a rallying point and a reason to be mad. Sound familiar? Frank will have his Wildcats whipped into an absolute frenzy to start the season! Man, I love watching Frank Martin coach!
The last thought I will share with you about teams from the North, is this: write out your preseason picks on a piece of paper. Wherever you have Missouri, move them up three spots! If you live anywhere near Columbia and don't have season tickets, you're nuts!
I have had the opportunity to see Texas several times this year, and I am here to tell you - whatever the problems were last year with chemistry and team cohesiveness are gone! If I walked into a gym and you gave me first pick and I looked out and saw Avery Bradley and Corey Joseph……I would pick Corey Joseph in the blink of an eye! The kid is the complete package, and maybe most importantly, he is as coachable as any ultra-hyped McDonald's All-American I have ever seen. Tristan Thompson is ridiculously long, and is getting better every time he steps onto the court. But the real story for the Longhorns this year is the improvement that has taken place between Jordan Hamilton's ears! His talent has always been obvious, but last season, his maturity and his willingness to "buy in" to what Rick Barnes was demanding appeared to be issue No. 1 to those of us on the outside looking in. This year is a completely different story. I cannot tell you how impressed I am with Jordan's approach to the game. He is up at the top of conference in scoring, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. He is not forcing shots and he might have the best mid-range game of anybody in the country. The Longhorns are back.
Baylor has struggled the last couple of weeks, but only because our expectations of Baylor basketball has been so dramatically raised by last season's success! A couple of years ago, no one would have given a second thought about what is wrong with Baylor after a couple of losses? Freshman sensation Perry Jones came in as highly-touted as any kid in BU history and he has not disappointed the Bear faithful. This team is as talented (more talented?) than last year's crew.
One last thought about teams from the South. With regards to Texas A&M, see the note above about Missouri, and ditto for the Aggies! Mark Turgeon consistently squeezes every ounce of juice possible out of his kids. Is there any greater compliment that you can give a coach than acknowledging that his teams always seem to overachieve? Not in my book!
Can you tell I am excited? I can't wait for this weekend! Somebody toss the ball up and let's get this thing going!
Let's Get It Started!
January 4, 2011 - Dave Armstrong, Big 12 Network
As we reach the end of the non-conference portion of the men's basketball schedule, our thoughts turn to the Conference race for the Big 12 title. Before the season began, all the focus was on Kansas State. The Wildcats came in with a No. 3 ranking and 10 of the 12 coaches' votes as Conference champion. KSU quickly went from the role of the hunter to the role of the hunted. A different landscape for them - a whole new mindset. There's certainly nothing to be ashamed of with a loss to number one Duke, but problems surfaced in Florida. In Coach Martin's boyhood backyard, the Gators embarrassed K-State. Then before their next game, the Wildcats announced that two of their starters would be missing some action due to off-court troubles. With the absences of preseason All-Americans Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly, Kansas State could not overcome the Runnin' Rebs of UNLV. Three losses have dropped the Cats in the polls, but I wouldn't count them out. In fact, this team is back on familiar turf. Now they can play with a chip on their shoulder again. Now they can try to prove their naysayers wrong. If you've already written off Frank Martin's team, you might want to rethink that position.
It is clear however that the road to the Big 12 title once again runs through Lawrence. The Kansas Jayhawks are the only unbeaten team in the Conference. With a No. 3 ranking and a team loaded with talent, KU is in position for an amazing seventh straight Conference championship. The 10 coaches that picked the Jayhawks second might have given Kansas even more incentive to win it again. Conference championships are to KU what the colors green and red are to Christmas. Now that freshman phenom Josh Selby is mixing in quite well with the Morris twins and the other very talented players, the Jayhawks have their sights set very high once again. Even another national title is not out of the question.
As good as Kansas is, they will be challenged. This is after all, the toughest basketball Conference in the land. Six teams were ranked in the top 25 for three straight weeks. So if you thought last years rise to the No. 1 Conference RPI was something, just wait.
The Missouri Tigers might be playing better than anyone right now. You need to throw out the preseason polls where Mike Anderson's team is concerned. They always finish higher than anyone predicts, and this year looks better than ever. A missed free throw is the only thing keeping the Tigers from an unblemished record. In what should be a spirited contest, Marcus Denmon would get my vote right now for Player of the Year. Mizzou creates havoc, and this is arguably the best team they've had in Columbia in years.
Texas A&M is another team that always seems to achieve at a higher level than most predict. Credit Mark Turgeon for putting together another solid team. Khris Middleton is a scoring machine, and I really like Nathan Walkup as the ultimate "glue" guy. The Aggies are tough.
Rick Barnes keeps reloading at Texas. This year's team is young, but extremely talented. With super frosh Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph joining Jordan Hamilton and Gary Johnson, UT has the talent to make a run at the Championship. The Longhorns have had impressive wins against Michigan State, Illinois and North Carolina. A tough loss against Pittsburgh and a head scratching 17-point defeat at USC are the only blemishes on a team that has won five in a row heading into showdowns with Arkansas and Connecticut. No question, Texas has played the toughest schedule and should be battle-tested heading into Conference play.
Baylor was doing great until tough trip to Hawaii where the Bears lost twice. I look for them to rebound and be a real factor in the race.
Several teams have impressive records…and several more come into conference play on a roll. Iowa State has won nine in a row, Nebraska eight. How about the job Fred Hoiberg is doing in his hometown? The "Mayor" is back, and the political scene never looked so good in Ames. I don't know if they have the talent to hang with the big boys, but the future sure looks bright and the magic is returning to Hilton Coliseum.
So it all begins this week. Can someone knock Kansas from their throne? Will someone picked near the bottom make a run and become a serious threat? What players will dominate, which will give us those "Wow!" moments? The answers start to take shape this Saturday when we tip the "second" season with five Conference games. I can't wait!