Texas basketball coach Shaka Smart (left) greets Texas Tech's Chris Beard prior to a game in Austin on Jan. 12, 2019. (John Gutierrez/USA TODAY Sports)

Men's Basketball

12 big things about Big 12 basketball: Shaka’s fate, Baylor as the 2020 Democratic presidential field and the de facto title game

Posted February 20th, 2020

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12. I guess we’ll address Chris Beard, Texas and Shaka Smart

Texas beat TCU on Wednesday 70-56. It was some of the best basketball the Longhorns have played in a while.

No one was there to see it.

Those power No. 1 fingers.

If want to know what is going to be the final thing that gets Shaka Smart fired at Texas, it won’t be a loss to Oklahoma in Norman to Kansas State this Saturday. Hell it won’t be if the team, which is 15-11 with five games remaining, miss the tournament. It’ll be that, as Kirk Bohls wrote, the reported 8,395 people in attendance was “charitable.”

I think there’s going to be a change. The fans finally did more than just go on social media and complain, they didn’t to go to the game. And it was a shame, because Will Baker was great and you wonder if you should buy some stock in Texas, if that’s how they will play moving forward, or if you should remind people that TCU is 1-9 in their last 10 games.

There’s probably going to be change.

That said:

I made a joke on Twitter midway through the first half of the Texas- Iowa State game last weekend after Bohls asked where Texas’ sense of urgency was on Twitter.

I told him that Chris Beard was coaching in Stillwater that day.

That set a lot of sensitive Texas Tech fans off.

They should be sensitive, because I don’t think Chris Beard will spend the rest of his career in Lubbock. But they should relax though, because I don’t really think Beard will leave Lubbock for Austin.

Chapel Hill, N.C., Lawrence, Kansas, East Lansing, Mich., Lexington, Kentucky, Tuscon, Arizona and Eugene, Oregon, sure.

It’s got nothing to do with his “don’t go to Texas” buyout in his contract. And it has nothing to do with Texas having no desire to pay all that money. Trust me, Texas really wants a good basketball team when it opens a basketball facility and arena that will dwarf anything — repeat — anything Texas Tech will build. I’m sorry for the Tech fans that don’t live in reality, but that’s the truth.

Ultimately, though, I just don’t think Beard will want to leave Tech like that. He clearly is a coach who has no problem leaving a program on a whim — Texas Tech fans should go talk to UNLV about that. It’s obvious he loves Texas Tech and loves the community and nothing will make him a bigger villain to those people if he left for Austin.

All the other locations I listed above, except for Eugene, I think Texas Tech fans can forgive him for leaving. The one in Kansas because it stills has the best arena — not the newest — and still has the only fan base you can count on to sellout the November games and the March games.

As for Texas, it’s not working and bringing Smart back next year messes up the schedule for the new arena.

Make a change now, let the new staff build a team and, come 2022, there’s a chance that the program has a top 25 squad. Don’t, and now you risk bringing in a new staff, new team, lack of a big name recruit in the new stadium.

Unless you bring back Smart and he suddenly does what most Texas fans have been waiting five years for, but that seems more wishful thinking at this point.

This isn’t the DC Cinematic Universe, where you just keep pumping money into these bad Superman and Justice League movies despite them just getting worse and worse. At some point, you need to recast and get a new Batman, and that’s what Warner Bros. has done and that’s what Chris Del Conte is probably going to do.

Who do you cast for the new coach? Well, like the Batman role, who wouldn’t want that job? Take the coaches at blue-blood programs off the list. Take Jay Wright and Tony Bennett off the list. I think you can put Chris Holtmann in the pool, Providence coach Ed Cooley,  Illinois coach Brad Underwood and all the other regulars like Gregg Marshall.

There’s a coach in Dayton, Ohio, who spent a few years coaching in NBA and as a head basketball coach of an SEC football school that should be considered. There’s a guy in Auburn who might be interested if you can stomach the NCAA stench. Maybe the gentleman who has taken the last few years off after building a two-time Final Four program in Columbus, Ohio, should get a look.

There’s an obvious one we’ll get to later.

There are a lot of options and a few limitations. I just don’t think Chris Beard the human will let Chris Beard the coach take the Texas job.

11. The Big 12 championship race is kind of over

It’s not over “over,” but we know it’s going to be either Kansas or Baylor and all the other teams are in a spoiler role. Kansas and Baylor already swept Oklahoma. Texas Tech plays like the NBA Western Conference champions in Lubbock, but the Cleveland Cavaliers everywhere else and that’s it. West Virginia has been exposed.

Here are the standings by the way:

Baylor 13-0

Kansas 12-1

Texas Tech 8-5

West Virginia 7-6

Oklahoma 6-7

Texas 5-8

TCU 5-8

Iowa State 4-9

Oklahoma State 3-10

Kansas State 2-11

For Texas Tech just to tie, they need Baylor to go 0-5 and the Red Raiders for 5-0. So it’s over for everyone outside Baylor and Kansas.

10. NIT bubble

Other than ending Texas Tech’s longshot Big 12 title chances on Saturday with a win, the biggest development from the weekend is the Big 12’s dubious position of having the most teams in one conference — probably — locks for the NIT with several more on the bubble.

That’s not a good thing.

Right now Oklahoma State would probably make the NIT. TCU — the NIT’s favorite program it seems — and Texas could be locks unless either get hot down the stretch, but Texas doesn’t have many more “win and you’re in games” and who really thinks TCU can beat KU in Lawrence when they can’t beat Texas in an empty Frank Erwin Center?

Iowa State is four games away from .500 overall and only Kansas State is the only team that’s not going to play postseason basketball.

Oklahoma is probably trending more as a tournament team, but they’re in a similar spot as Texas schedule-wise.

Four teams possibly in the NIT and four teams in the NCAA would seem like something the Big 12 could brag about, but three of those possible NIT teams are massive disappointments.

Oklahoma State has been the year’s biggest disappointment, but they did beat Texas Tech last weekend.

I thought TCU and Iowa State would be bad this year. I was right on one and perhaps I’m right on TCU. I was wrong on Kansas State. The experience and the Bruce Weber impact, I just thought it would yield a pretty typical 19 or 20 wins and a first weekend exit for the Wildcats. But that squad has been bad.

Trust me, you don’t need anymore words on Texas in this column. But most people will tell you the Longhorns are, in fact, the most disappointing team in the league and perhaps college basketball.

9. Oklahoma

I see it’s time to ask, for the third straight season: Does Oklahoma even want to make the tournament? Is there a three-week music festival or something in the middle of March Lon Kruger likes to take the guys to? Can OU really make the tournament when its best win is a home game against West Virginia? The Sooners need to beat Texas Tech at home next week.

Jan 29, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Baylor Bears guard Matthew Mayer (24) sets the Bears offense in their game with the Iowa State Cyclones at Hilton Coliseum. Baylor beat Iowa State 67 to 53. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

8. Baylor basketball has turned into the 2020 Democratic presidential field

Baylor entered the week having been ranked No. 1 for four weeks — the most any team has all season. They’ve won 23 games in a row — the most to do so in 22 years! The Bears are Top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency at Kenpom and have just beaten great teams over, and over, and over again.

It makes no sense to me why people are picking Baylor No. 1 every week but no one seems to mention them as the clear title front-runner.

I understand their arguments — no inside game, no superstar, they struggle to score — it makes sense.

Watch the games. The Beards have found ways to win when they play bad which is how teams make the Final Four.

It’s like the current Democratic primary,  where you have one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who just keep winning all these primaries and getting all these votes and topping all these polls, but we’re still hearing about the Michael Bloombergs and the Amy Klobuchars.

At some point you just have to admit Baylor is the title favorite.

7. Why not Freddie Gillespie or Marcus Garrett for Big 12 POY?

I was on the Marcus Garrett push pretty early. It’s hard to watch Kansas and not be amazed at how good he is — if you can just get over the shooting factor. I’m tired of people not taking him seriously because of that when he doesn’t shoot much anyway. Every coach in the country would give an arm for a guy like him.

Just watch the Oklahoma and West Virginia games.

Meanwhile, in Waco, what are the Bears without Gillespie?

I know that scoring and points per game is what the average basketball fan looks at. I know the reality is that this is a race between Kansas’ Devon Dotson and Baylor’s Jared Butler, but the only guy who plays harder than Gillespie is Garrett and the only guy who brings more to his team consistently than Garrett is Gillespie. They know what they are. They know what their flaws are and they just out-work you and avoid their deficiencies.

In a year where defense is defining this league, not naming the two hardest working defenders as first team all-conference and POY may come across as the league admitting that the defensive reputation is being built on a lie and that its terrible offenses that are leading to great defenses.

In Big 12 play, Garrett is averaging 10.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists (second in the league only to Tyrese Haliburton who is out for the rest of the season), has a 2.7 assists-to-turnover ratio (tops in the league), 2 steals a game (second in the league only to Haliburton) and is fourth in minutes played.

Gillespie is averaging 10.1 points, 8.6 rebounds (fifth) and third in blocked shots with 2.3.

Those are just Big 12 stats.

I know there’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. But this year, what is the difference between that and Player of the Year in the Big 12?

6. Tweet of the week

And

So when you searched “John Beilein” on Twitter Tuesday night, “John Beilein Texas” came up as the first result.

Hiring Beilein at Texas would be a smart move by UT in the short-term, but I don’t know how much of a slam dunk it is. It’s definitely less controversial than Texas hiring away a coach in the same league and the same state. Beilein’s resume is demonstrably better than Beard’s current resume, but Beard’s future projections are better.

My question on Beilein — who would be a terrific hire for anyone — would be this:

Is a 67-year-old coach who might have taken a horrible NBA job last summer because he was tired of recruiting and tired of players leaving early the best fit for the University of Texas job?

A job where fans will expect the coach to recruit at a high-level, which means more players leaving early either via the draft or transfers — because when you recruit a high level, you are constantly recruiting over current players.

Is it the right fit for Beilein? If Beilein plans to install his Michigan operation at Texas, one that took him unil his fifth season to win his first Big Ten title and included two losing seasons in his first three years, we’re not talking about a quick turnaround. Remember, he missed the NCAA Tournament three times in his five seasons at West Virginia. The two times he did make it, he went to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16.

One thing I’ll give Smart credit for is that if he is fired or leaves for another job, I think you can reasonably expect a lot of roster attrition because Smart is a players’ coach, even if the players don’t always play like it. Translation: I think you’ll see guys leave for professional opportunities or transfer instead of starting over with a new coach, even if it is a Hall of Fame caliber guy.

We won’t know what type of job Beilein wants until the coaching carousel works itself out, but if he thinks there are some more prominent basketball schools that could make changes, he could be more inclined to go there.

Case in point, if Arizona fired Sean Miller at the end of the season, the Wildcats will be looking for A) a coach who is the cleanest possible NCAA candidate they could find and B) a coach who will still excite the fans and build great basketball teams without nailing every recruiting class. Arizona would, probably, pay more for a basketball coach than Texas.

That’s just an example and that same example could be applied to one Big 12 school in particular.

Just because it seems to make a ton of sense — especially with Beilein’s former assistant already on campus — it doesn’t mean it’s a no-brainer for the school or for Beilein.

I could see Beilein preferring to land at potential openings at Boston College or Wake Forest for less money than him taking on the enormity of the Texas job.

It would still be an awesome hire for Texas to get a coach like Beilein, the most accomplished coach — two Final Fours, four Elite Eights, seven Sweet 16s,  two league championships, 14 fourth-place or better conference finishes — Texas would have ever hired for basketball.

Games to watch

5. Texas at Kansas State, Saturday, 1 p.m., CBS

Roy Williams voice: Why is this dadgum game on national TV?

There’s no reason these teams should be put on national TV, which is why this is here, so I can say how ridiculous it is that this game is going to available to everyone, but yet the weekend before, when West Virginia went to Baylor, the best game was on ESPN+. Can CBS flex this game to LHN? Does LHN really want it? Sixth-place Texas vs. last-place Kansas State. Enjoy.

Winner: ESPNU

4. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN2

If Oklahoma loses this game the Sooners might not make the NCAA Tournament. They don’t have a ton of opportunities left to beat highly ranked teams so they have to stay clean against teams not making the NCAA Tournament. Oklahoma State has played hard the last few weeks.

Pick: Oklahoma. If they don’t, they take themselves out of the NCAA Tournament conversation.

West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins shouts instructions to his players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against TCU, Monday, January 4, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas. West Virginia won 95-87. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

3. No. 17 West Virginia at TCU, Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPNU

If TCU wants to climb back in the NCAA Tournament conversation, beating West Virginia at home is how it’s done. But they just lost at Texas by 14, so this would be an upset.

Pick: West Virginia.

2. Texas Tech at Oklahoma, Tuesday, Feb. 25, ESPN/ESPN2

If OU loses to OSU, this becomes a must-win game for the Sooners. If OU wins the Bedlam game, then a win here might seal up a NCAA Tournament bid. There are four good teams in the Big 12. Two of them are great teams. That makes West Virginia and Texas Tech’s road schedule a lot more difficult because OU, Texas and TCU are more likely to beat those teams than the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the country.

Pick: Texas Tech. Despite all the road struggles, Texas Tech is bound to win on the road against a good team once.

And that leads us to…

1. No. 3 Kansas at No. 1 Baylor, Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN

Let’s dump my notes I’ve taken the last few weeks of watching and prepping for this game:

First note: Kansas has a tiny schedule advantage here in that this game is tipping off at 11 a.m., a notorious time for basketball because it’s rather early. Kansas will be playing its third straight Saturday with an 11 a.m. tip. I think it’s a minor advantage and probably won’t mean much, but it’s enough to point out.

Second note: Every time I think Baylor is about to hit a snag, the Bears win. On Tuesday, I thought Oklahoma had things going midway through the second half, but Baylor just blasted through and won impressively.

Third note: Even though Baylor has been the No. 1 team for a month, I doubt they mentally feel like the favorite against Kansas and I think they will play as though they’re playing “KANSAS” and not like they’re playing “Oklahoma State” a few weeks ago. That was the game they should have lost, but they didn’t and KU often brings out the best in Big 12 teams, especially when KU is on the road.

Fourth note: Baylor isn’t playing the same KU team they beat 67-55 in Allen Fieldhouse in January. That KU team got 28 minutes from an injured Devon Dotson who has played at least 34 minutes in eight of the 10 games he’s played in since. That KU team was battling nagging injuries to Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji and started two bigs. Since that game, the Jayhawks have started a smaller lineup with an extra shooter on the floor, Dotson has made a National Player of the Year case and Garrett might have established himself as the best player in the conference.

Fifth note: All these basketball writers keep writing Baylor’s Final Four chances off because of a lack of inside game and lack of a go-to player but they don’t spend enough time talking about the two awesome post players and the terrific shooters they have. This game will either confirm those writers’ Baylor opinions or crush them, because Kansas is a title favorite in Las Vegas and a title favorite in my mind because they have a strong inside game and because they have a go-to scorer. I’m not sure you can beat a KU team that doesn’t have a Dotson playing with a hip-pointer, Garrett playing with a tender ankle and an Agbaji with a bad back by shooting mid-rangers and relying on making double-digit 3-pointers.

Sixth note: College Game Day is going to be a must-watch because it leads right into the tip. The place will be insane. It won’t bother Kansas, which hasn’t lost on the road, because that’s kind of what Kansas gets every game. It’s unfair to say Baylor hasn’t had any game like this before in the last six years, but it does add a layer of pressure to the home team.

The pressure isn’t on Kansas. It’s on Baylor. The Bears are playing to become the first lock No.1 seed, barring anything funky, in the tournament. They’re playing for a realistic Big 12 title share — hard to see Kansas making up two games with a trip to Lubbock on the schedule — they’re playing for their reputation as a college basketball power. Everyone was quick to praise Texas Tech because they went to Final Four and an Elite Eight the last two years, but Baylor has been more consistent for 12. They have been as good — go look at the records — as many of the top college basketball programs you think of off the top of your head, but they fail in these moments too many times so people never think of them that way. It’s why people — I’m guilty of this — make fun of Scott Drew.

Seventh note: If Kansas wins this game in any form or fashion, I will be replaying Bill Self’s quote following the NCAA Notice of Allegations in October saying he was going to be more motivated to coach this season.

Feb 18, 2020; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Baylor Bears forward Freddie Gillespie (33) works his way to the basket against Oklahoma Sooners forward Brady Manek (35) during the first half at Lloyd Noble Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Eighth note: Baylor isn’t the same team with Freddie Gillespie on the bench, so I expect KU to try and get a big game from Udoka Azubuike — who probably going to try and prove he’s worth of Big 12 Player of the Year as well — and try to get Gillespie in foul trouble. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Baylor plays zone because of this, and frankly, if you watch KU play you wonder why more teams aren’t playing zone until Kansas can prove it can hit 3-pointers. Playing man plays right into what Kansas wants: hunting for screens and matchups and limiting the amount of 3-pointers they take. KU doesn’t even really struggle in 3-point percentage like the narrative suggests. The Jayhawks are second to Texas Tech at 35.5%, but are ninth in 3-point attempts, behind only West Virginia.

Ninth note: Baylor isn’t statistically the best 3-point shooting team, but the Bears are the team I fear the most, because they have shooters off the bench and Butler.

10th note: MaCio Teague hasn’t played the last two games for Baylor and it hasn’t hurt them yet. He played 35 minutes and scored 16 points with three 3-points in the first KU game. Him being available means KU has to at least think about which player Garrett draws defensively. If Garrett doesn’t get glued to Butler on Saturday I’ll be surprised, which means Agbaji probably gets Teague and Dotson gets Davion Mitchell. On the other side, I imagine if Baylor sticks with the man defense that it’ll want to protect Butler from foul issues and put him on Isaiah Moss or Christian Braun and let their best defender, Mitchell, work on Dotson. Kansas is good because the three guards they play all drive to the basket so they can all force contact and fouls. Moss and Braun will work the perimeter and we saw against West Virginia two weeks ago how Self has devised that flare screen to get Moss open for 3-pointers.

11th note: These teams are entering prime tournament run shape like we just haven’t had the last few years in this league. Sure Texas Tech and Kansas have made the Final Four the last two seasons, but the biggest complaint with the Big 12 has been too many good teams and not enough championship contenders. Even when Press Virginia and Hoiberg’s Transfer Heros were rolling, you never felt like those teams were rounding into Final Four material because most the time they had glaring, glaring flaws. You have to go back to the late 2000s when Kansas won the title in 2008 and Texas had its last great Rick Barnes team that reached the Elite Eight when I felt this good about two teams heading to the Final Four. That includes the Buddy Hield OU Final Four team because the Sooners finished third in the Big 12.

You have to look hard to find flaws in Kansas and Baylor this year as they’re currently playing.

12th and final note for the de facto Big 12 title game: The season is far from over for both, but this game certainly feels like a conference title game. The next important date on the league schedule will be March 7 when Kansas goes to Lubbock and Baylor to Morgantown.

Pick: Kansas. At the end of the day, when two teams are this even, I look at who has the best player on the court. And Dotson and Garrett will be the best players on the court Saturday. I’ve picked Baylor to lose a game the last two weeks and been proven wrong each week. I’m ready to be wrong again.

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