Men's Basketball

12 Big Things to know about Big 12 basketball: A big stretch for three contenders

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Posted February 22nd, 2019

Here are 12 big things I’ve noticed this week about one of college basketball’s best leagues.

Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) celebrates after he scored against North Carolina State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

12. Don’t blame ESPN

When Texas Tech announced the tip-off time a few weeks ago for its home game against Kansas, a prime-time 7 p.m. Saturday affair, it instantly gave the host network, ESPN, a marquee game that weekend.

Immediately after seeing it I thought it was a slam dunk for the ESPN College GameDay.

Alas, it’s not happening. Zion Williamson is a too good to pass up.

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Or, well, he was. 

I saw some Texas Tech and Kansas fans were upset last weekend that the network picked a game between the No. 1 team in the nation and unranked Syracuse. The fact is the highlight reel that is Williamson and two other sure-fire lottery picks on the Duke roster are the biggest thing in college basketball since Kentucky in 2015.

I don’t blame ESPN for not wanting to spend the day in Lubbock, especially considering Texas Tech’s style of play and Kansas’ road struggles. Not to mention the Orange trying to sweep Duke this season. 

However, it’ll be a weird day in Syracuse for ESPN. On Thursday news broke that Jim Boeheim killed a person.

Back to basketball.

It was perhaps the last opportunity for GameDay to visit a Big 12 school this season. Had the first Kansas-Texas Tech matchup not been on CBS, I could have seen the pregame show coming to Lawrence. Maybe if Iowa State’s senior day game against Texas Tech is for the league championship, we’ll see GameDay in Ames in March.

Well. Never mind. Duke plays in Chapel Hill, N.C. that day.

11. Chris Beard got mad

At the end of the Baylor-Texas Tech game on Saturday, Red Raider walk-on Avery Benson threw down an alley-oop in the final seconds and coach Chris Beard lost it:

I guess good for sportsmanship on Beard’s behalf. We’ve seen other coaches lose their minds like this — I can remember a Kansas-Iowa State game where Bill Self blew a gasket for the same reason.

Part me of thinks it’s a bit of an over-correction on Beard, who celebrated the first Big 12 win of the season over West Virginia like he had just advanced to the Sweet 16. It was January. WVU coach Bob Huggins called it classless.

Beard is a tremendous coach. The last thing he wants is a reputation that he and his program are classless.

Kansas State forward Dean Wade (32) is covered by Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Manhattan, Kan., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

10. Dean Wade’s status will impact the standings

Kansas State senior Dean Wade played 32 minutes and scored 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting in a win over West Virginia on Monday.

It’s a terrific sign for the Wildcats because Saturday was a different story. If you believed the reports after KSU lost at home to Iowa State, Wade playing on Monday seemed unlikely. But coach Bruce Weber seemed a little annoyed by the Wade questions after that ISU game and now we know why: perhaps Wade’s foot thing is nothing.

But maybe it’s something that will linger.  Only they know.

Regardless, if Wade is up and down health wise for the rest of the season, his status will play a role in who wins the conference and how far his team will go.

The same team that went to the Elite Eight didn’t have Wade, so the Wildcats know how to play without him. But that’s not true now because Cartier Diarra is out, KSU can’t afford to lose Wade.

They can win against WVU, who played its best game in since beating OU earlier this month and still lost by 14. They can against OSU, their Saturday opponent who beat short-handed TCU on Monday. 

Wade isn’t the best player on his team– though he was the preseason conference player of the year– that would be Barry Brown.  Wade is certainly the player that takes KSU from good to Final Four good. He’s the best stretch-four there is in the Big 12 and perhaps one of the best in the nation.

Without him, Kansas State was 1-2 in the Big 12. With him, Kansas State was 9-1.

Before we breakdown what needs to happen for “X team” to win the conference race, know that if Wade is 90 percent healthy, Kansas State remains the favorite to win the league.

It’s tough to worry too much after seeing him play that much against West Virginia.

TCU forward Kouat Noi (12) celebrates sinking a three-point basket against Kansas in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Fort Worth, Texas, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

9. The real injury that will swing the league

TCU sophomore Kouat Noi’s ankle injury will impact the league more than any other injury. Noi rolled his ankle and had a boot on Saturday. He didn’t play Monday in Stillwater.

TCU lost both games — devastating losses for a team that has now lost three straight games since blasting Iowa State in Ames.

TCU has played the last two games with seven scholarship players available. This isn’t Kansas from two years ago, who played with seven players but also had the NPOY and the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft on the roster. This is different.

Big picture wise, TCU’s regression impacts the league because Iowa State plays in Forth Worth this weekend. Kansas State and Texas Tech play in Fort Worth the first two games of March.

If there’s to be a 12-6 four-way tie for the league title, TCU has to win home games. If not, if TCU is no better than Baylor was without Makai Mason and King McClure and thus becomes beatable no matter where the game is, then Kansas State and Texas Tech ought to win in Fort Worth.

If Noi and Lat Mayen return for the March 2 and March 4 — if not this weekend — gauntlet of Tech and KSU and TCU is the team that beat Iowa State,  that team can beat anyone in the league.

Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) attempts to get past West Virginia guard Jermaine Haley (10)during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

8. Are we sure Ochai Agbaji is in Kansas’ 2020 plans?   

There are NBA Draft sites that predict drafts from years on out. The 2020 draft is already being thrown out there. Kansas freshman Ochai Agbaji, a former 3-star recruit, is being listed as a possible lottery pick.

I’m not 100 percent sure he makes it to the 2019-2020 season.

Kansas was trying to redshirt him this season, and now it looks like the 6-foot-5-inch guard is one March run away from being this year’s version of Zhaire Smith.

If Agbaji is already knocking down 3-pointers (39 percent), already completing alley-oops and playing with energy, I’m not sure how or why he returns to Kansas next season. Unless, you know, he just digs being a Jayhawk, which could be the case considering his recruitment and how he has played this year.

This Saturday is a big moment not just for Agbaji, but for Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver, who has been the most likely Big 12 guard to be drafted in the lottery all season. He’s been phenomenal. He’s the only player not named Jaxson Hayes who I can confidently say is a lock to be drafted in the first round.

But how he plays against Agbaji — if that’s the matchup —  will be watched by scouts all over. A good game by Agbaji at Texas Tech, and maybe the Kansas City product is the one-and-done Kansas didn’t know it had in November.

Texas’ Kamaka Hepa looks on as Elijah Mitrou-Long, left, and Matt Coleman III celebrate a basket by Courtney Ramey against Oklahoma State on Saturday. [Rodolfo Gonzalez/For STATESMAN]

7. Tournament dreams

Kansas State has the best tournament team because Kansas State has the most experienced team. The team hopes Diarra is back by the postseason. Maybe Wade gets a rest and sits out the conference tournament and he’s even more ready to go.

I always like Kansas in the tournament because Bill Self (eight Elite Eights, 10 Sweet 16s, three Finals Fours, two National Championship games, one National Championship in 15 years) is actually really good in March despite the reputation he has of early exits. It would not surprise me if Kansas is suddenly a game away from the Final Four again.

The two schools from Kansas have the things that throw off projections — coaching ability and experience.

Texas Tech is playing as well as anyone, but good coaches who have scouted them can take advantage of their sometimes stalling offense — which can be said about KSU and KU, but those schools have better offenses to overcome poor stretches.

Iowa State is team that will ruin your bracket. Analysts will love them on Selection Sunday because of the Cyclones’ 10th-ranked offense and 39th-ranked defense, but when they’re trailing on a Thursday or Friday game and lose, anyone who has followed the Big 12 all season can look smart. Iowa State lays too many eggs.

The team from the Big 12 that will get an 8 or a 9 seed I would not want to play if I was a No. 1 or No. 2 seed is Texas.

I think the Longhorns, TCU, Baylor and OU all kind of project as squads who will be looking at the 8, 9 or 10 line. If they win the first game on Thursday or Friday, they will play a top seed over the weekend.

The Longhorns, inconsistent with an ugly but efficient offense, is a potential nightmare for top seeds because they have, under Smart, played up and down to their opponent and have high-level players and start two seniors. They aren’t as good as Duke, Virginia, Tennessee, Gonzaga or Kentucky, but none of those schools would look forward to playing a battle-tested, talent-filled team that has mostly underachieved this season.

Look at Texas A&M last March as an example of a squad who had loads of talent but underachieved for most of the year, got a bad seed and then smoked North Carolina in the round of 32.

OU is hard to project. They have talent and experience but lose badly and probably shouldn’t be in the tournament at this point.

TCU and Baylor are darkhorses if they get healthy, especially TCU who when healthy has two deadly shooters in Desmond Bane and Noi and a senior point guard in Alex Robinson.

Baylor guards Makai Mason, right, and Mark Vital, left, hug after beating Iowa State 73-69 in an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

6. The Baylor-Iowa State game on Tuesday

Baylor scored a monster win on Tuesday by beating Iowa State in Ames. It probably secures them a tournament spot.

Iowa State, meanwhile, has now lost back-to-back road games and three this season in Ames in Big 12 play.

If Baylor is going to play like this down the stretch– Freddie Gillespie grabbing every offensive rebound in sight and Jared Butler emerging as a big-shot taker–  then the Kansas State-Baylor game is going to be one of the best games of the year. 

The problem is Baylor has been so inconsistent since Makia Mason suffered a toe injury that it’s been hard to predict what they do. Maybe the Bears are figuring it out. But we are less than a week removed from Baylor being non-competitive in a 25-point loss at Lubbock. 

Here’s what I know: Baylor went on a torrid stretch when Mason and McClure were healthy. McClure was a game-time decision according to coach Scott Drew but didn’t play against Iowa State. If he returns for March, Baylor is brutal matchup for any team moving forward because of the shooters and the 2-3 zone. 

Iowa State, with five conference loses with games remaining at Texas, at TCU and a home games against Texas Tech, I don’t think they can climb back into the race.

Games to watch

5. Oklahoma State at Kansas State, Saturday

Could be important. Could be a blowout.

Wade played on Monday and one would think he could be even more healthy by Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State.

It wouldn’t be surprising to anyone if Kansas State, being at home and playing the second-worst team in the league, decides to hold Wade out with a trip to Lawrence less than 48 hours later.

Coach Bruce Weber could be in a no-win situation with his fan base. Play Wade against OSU and risk him aggravating an injury against a team they should beat without him? Sit him and risk being upset against an OSU team that played OK at KU and just beat TCU?

Then again, maybe it all works, like it did against WVU and this is just being overly cautious. The reality is KSU has a team that if healthy can reach the Final Four. Senior-laden, great defense with a terrific scorer and lots of shooters. If you can give Wade a break against OSU, maybe you do it.

For OSU, a win here while playing the spoiler role again would be the biggest win of the season and perhaps helps OSU carry some momentum down the stretch and into the offseason. Unless there are some surprise early-departures, the Cowboys should be ready to turn the corner next season with Cameron McGriff and Lindy Waters entering senior seasons.

Texas forward Dylan Osetkowski (21) drives against Oklahoma forward Brady Manek (35) during an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, in Austin, Texas. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

4. Texas at Oklahoma, Saturday

Like Kansas and Texas Tech, these two teams also got the mid-week off and like the Red Raiders and Jayhawks, both had a week to prepare for monster games.

Oklahoma is 4-9 in conference play and somehow people still think the Sooners are tournament bound. It would be a farce if OU got in with less than eight conference wins. To get to that number, OU has to go 3-1 after beating Texas with games at Iowa State, West Virginia, Kansas and at Kansas State.

To say this game is important for OU is an understatement.

Texas is moving away from bubble team status despite its 15-11 overall record. Texas’ non-conference slate is why, but also because Texas has risen above TCU and OU as the sixth-best team in the league and are healthier than Baylor, which makes them the fifth-best team in the league.

Texas can still lose three games and I think they could miss the tournament, but now Texas ought to play the rest of the season with mission to improve its seed, not just to get in. How they play at Norman– where OU has lost by 30 points to Baylor, 12 to Texas Tech and 13 to Kansas State — will tell you a lot about this team’s tournament future.

Texas isn’t good enough to overlook any team, but they are good enough to run this OU team off the floor.

Will this be the prettiest game to watch?

Eh, no.

OU enters the game with the second-best field goal defense in the league at 39.7 percent. Texas enters this game with the seven-best field goal shooting percentage at 43.8. Flip it around, Texas’ field goal defense is seventh and OU’s field goal shooting is sixth. Both teams rank in the bottom half of 3-point shooting and 3-point defense.

Hard to believe at times, but Texas’ offense ranks 32nd in the nation at Kenpom (OU is 79), meanwhile OU’s defense is ranked No. 17 (Texas is 33).

I wouldn’t read much into either of the team’s latest wins. TCU is a different squad right now and Texas was playing the last-place OSU Cowboys.

Iowa State guard Marial Shayok walks to the other side of the court after a foul on Baylor during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, in Ames, Iowa. Baylor won 73-69. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

3. Iowa State at TCU, Saturday

This game took a big turn Tuesday when Iowa State lost at home to Baylor. Now for Iowa State to remain afloat in the conference race, they have to win because as much as the projections say Kansas State is finishing with six league loses, I don’t see it. Maybe five, but not six.

Lucky for Iowa State, TCU is spiraling out of control with just seven healthy players. Will they get two key pieces back for this game? Possibly. Having close to an entire week to get healthy (TCU played on Monday) really benefits the Horned Frogs.

Also, a healthy TCU buried this Cyclones team in Ames two weeks ago.

Texas Tech guard Matt Mooney (13) shooots as Oklahoma forward Brady Manek, right, defends, during an NCAA college basketball game in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

2. Kansas State at Kansas, Monday

1. Kansas at Texas Tech, Saturday

Here’s the thing about this game: It’ll give an edge to the winner in the race for the league, but the loser’s chances of winning the league are not dead either. Both teams can afford to lose this game and still win the league because Kansas State still holds most of the cards.

Unless Kansas State is upset on Saturday, and drops to 10-4 in the league, and Kansas wins at home Monday, the Texas Tech-Kansas game is merely an important game to keep pace for the league.

There’s too much time left and too many games on the schedule remaining for this one game to truly be the difference maker right now.

However, this game will be the one both teams look back on if they do win the league. 

Texas Tech winning this game means they avoid another home lose in league play. It means they exact revenge on the Jayhawks from last season and earlier in the month. But among the four teams fighting for the league title, Texas Tech has the toughest single game remaining on the schedule: at Iowa State on March 9. A win here is just another giant win over the best program in the conference that keeps the train moving, but there are still hurdles.

Kansas winning means it’s part one of a two game climb back to the top of the standings. If Kansas wins in Lubbock but loses 48 hours later at home against Kansas State, it’s a push. For Kansas, Tech and Iowa State to have a real chance at this league title, Kansas needs to beat KSU at home to hand the Wildcats a league loss, because the final games KSU has are games it should win: Baylor, at TCU and Oklahoma.

If Kansas goes 2-0 in these two games, with remaining slates at Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma and Baylor, the Jayhawks’ path to at least a share of the conference title probably hinges on OU not being bad, but OU is is 4-9 in league play with more ugly loses than impressive wins.

Baylor coach Scott Drew, who plays Kansas on March 9 in Lawrence, is 4-23 all-time against Bill Self. Kansas hasn’t lost a home finale since 1983. Kansas State’s Monday game is the last great chance for a team to beat Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse this season, and if Kansas State is going to end the streak, slaying Kansas at home would be a cool way to do it.

Whoever comes out victorious in Lubbock on Saturday will, in the moment, have the most buzz. But it’s certainly not done.

 

 

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