Posted December 21st, 2017
Each week I give you 12 things to know about Big 12 men’s basketball. For part I of this column, click here.
5. Texas Tech (10-1)
Of all the teams in the Big 12, I may be most surprised by the Red Raiders. I thought Tech would be the seventh team in this league and struggle to make the tournament. The No. 13-ranked team in KenPom is 10-1. I’ll be consistent and note that their schedule is not great — 324th-toughest schedule. But they have wins over an ACC team (Boston College, who beat Duke) and a Big Ten team (Northwestern). They beat Wofford, who has wins over North Carolina and Georgia Tech, 79-56. They beat a ranked Nevada team 82-76 in overtime, and their lone loss is on a neutral court in New York City against Seton Hall, whose campus is very close to New York City.
Tech has the same problem TCU has is that they didn’t play a single true road game. If people are going to kill the blue bloods of college basketball for not scheduling road games, then the traditional middle-of-the-road power five programs need to be at least called out on that too. The difference is I thought TCU would be really good this season. I thought Tech would be the equivalent of a shrug gif.
Why is Tech playing above their heads? Well, they have a good coach in Chris Beard, and Keenan Evans is playing like an All-Big 12 player with 17.2 points, two steals and 3.8 assists per game. It’s not just him. Jarret Culver and Zhaire Smith have been terrific. The player I thought was the best guy on the roster, Zach Smith, actually hasn’t been all that impactful number-wise (7 ppg., 4.2 rpg.).
We know that Tech can be a tough place to play in conference. We know that Beard is playing 10 guys a game and holding teams to 60 points per game. I don’t see this team being able to win the league in the best case scenario (unlike TCU). But their worst case scenario is that they’re the seventh-worst team in the Big 12 and are on the bubble in March.
Why I’m wrong: Texas Tech will continue this run and their strength of schedule’s raw numbers are misleading.
Why I’m right: The strength of schedule numbers reflect a team that’s won all they games they should have won and lost all the games they should have.
4. Baylor (9-2)
The Bears’ 317t- ranked schedule is laughable for a team that has raised their national perception over the last decade. Baylor is supposed to be a top 25 program. Schedule like it.
However — Baylor did schedule like it!
It’s not the Bears’ fault that Wisconsin is bad this season. Baylor had a four-game stretch this non-conference season that no team in the Big 12, on paper, saw. Baylor played Wisconsin, Creighton, Xavier and Wichita State between Nov. 20 and Dec. 2. On paper, that’s brutal. But the Badgers aren’t good, Creighton isn’t as good as they have been, but Xavier and the Shockers are top 25 teams.
The problem is Baylor lost to the two best teams they’ve played this season, Xavier and WSU. The second problem is Baylor has played teams like “Randall” and Southern since Dec. 2. Baylor is dominating that part of the schedule, which is why KenPom has them at No. 23.
Manu Lecomte is playing like an All-Big 12 player with 18.4 points per game. Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. is playing like the dominant force Baylor had always dreamed of him becoming with a 15.1 points per game average as well as 10 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
Baylor also has had the second-worst injury luck of the Big 12 (Texas’ Andrew Jones’ injury is No. 1). Terry Maston not being available for Baylor against WSU hurt them, and he hasn’t played since the Xavier game, when he broke his hand. With him, Baylor can beat anyone in the league. Without him, I don’t know because Baylor has played one tough game since the injury and lost close at home to WSU.
Why I’m wrong: With Maston back and Lecomte and Lual-Acuil, Baylor rolls over the Big 12 with a mix of offense and defense that no team in the Big 12 has. Lecomte emerges as a legit Big 12 POY talent and Lual-Acuil is the league’s most dominant big man. Scott Drew wins Big 12 Coach of the Year.
Why I’m right: Baylor never really gets Maston back 100 percent and crumbles against the grind of the Big 12. Lecomte struggles against the awesome point guards he faces in the league, and Lual-Acuil is finally playing big men with the size and strength to give him problems. And we’re sure coach Scott Drew does something that makes us question his sideline acumen.
3. Oklahoma (9-1)
Trae Young plays for Oklahoma. The Sooners have the right pieces around him and a coach that is as worthy of the hall of fame as any active non-hall of famer there is. A tough schedule compared to the rest of the league (137-ranked in KenPom) with wins over Oregon, Southern Cal and No.3-ranked Wichita State on the road helps their resume.
I’m not sure any team in the nation has a better player than Young. He is now one of the front-runners for National Player of the Year, not just Big 12 Player of the Year after the games he’s had in the last week. He’s yet to have a bad game this season. This team also has pieces around like the man who won’t graduate, Khadeem Lattin, as well as Kristian Doolittle and Christian James. Throw in another good freshman in Brady Manek and Oklahoma is loaded.
However, Oklahoma has yet to prove it can win a game when Young struggles — because he hasn’t –– and there are too many good coaches, great defensive players, back courts and team defenses in the Big 12 for that not to happen three or four times in Big 12 play (look at Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson, Blake Griffin, Marcus Smart and Myles Turner and more for examples). Only two freshmen can say they went through a Big 12 season with pretty much ease and those two guys (Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley) were in watered-down versions of the Big 12 and had two of the four greatest modern-era freshman seasons ever.
Why I’m wrong: There is no evidence Young will slow down and he may play even better with tougher challenges because he will be an all-time great college basketball player. Also, the supporting cast is way better than anyone thinks and Lon Kruger is one of the 10-15 best coaches in college basketball.
Why I’m right: I trust Bob Huggins and Bill Self and their senior point guards to slow down Young and force Doolittle and James to beat them. Of the top three teams in the Big 12, Oklahoma could be the most vulnerable on their home court, meaning they’re more likely to lose a mid-January game to Texas Tech, Kansas State or Iowa State than West Virginia and Kansas.
1T. West Virginia (10-1)
Yes, this feels like a year when we have another tie in the Big 12.
It’s been a few years since the last time (2013, Kansas and Kansas State tied with 14-4 records). West Virginia is No. 9 in KenPom, the second-highest ranked team from the Big 12. They have not played the toughest schedule, that would be the next team on this list, and if we’re going by margin of victory, the Mountaineers’ 88-65 loss to Texas A&M is the worst in the Big 12.
But they’ve not lost since that first game of the season that was played on an army base in Germany. And their win over Virginia is one of the best wins any team in the Big 12 has (it goes OU’s win over the Shockers, Kansas’ win over Kentucky and West Virginia’s win over Virginia).
West Virginia also scored a rivalry win over Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh and beat Missouri on a neutral floor. The Mountaineers played just one true road game (Pittsburgh) and have played a lot of patsies this season.
Throw in that Esa Ahmad is about to return to the lineup, and West Virginia is about to get even better.
West Virginia is a proven commodity in the Big 12. I know West Virginia is going to play that gimmicky press the whole game, I know they’ll, at worst, lose one home game in conference play and I know Jevon Carter is going to play the best defense in the Big 12. I know the offense will be questionable, but not as bad as Texas’ current offense. And I know Bob Huggins should be in the hall of fame and is the second-best coach in this league. Also, they’re the most likely of all these teams to beat Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse.
So yeah, if I think 14-15 wins in conference play will yield a share of the conference title, then I’ll roll with West Virginia to tie Kansas.
Is this a cop-out? No. If anything its me knowing that Kansas is still the heavy favorite to win this league and the numbers back me up, but also me knowing that I’ve watched every Kansas game and that team has obvious flaws, which I trust West Virginia most to expose.
The highest-rated Big 12 team in KenPom (No. 7) who has played the No. 117th ranked schedule (toughest in the Big 12), Kansas is still the heavy favorite by most in the college basketball world to win this league. Kansas is also one of the most flawed teams in the Big 12. They have eight available scholarship players — all of whom are former top 100 recruits or All-Big 12 conference players — and they don’t rebound well and don’t shoot a lot of free throws.
They are what their Hall of Fame coach calls “soft” at times.
But when it’s all working there is not a better team in the Big 12. And they, like West Virginia, could get roster help before next Friday. Will Billy Preston be able to play, Bill Self seems to think so.
Will Silvio De Sousa be eligible as a mid-season freshman pick-up? Someone at Kansas seems to think so.
Kansas has its thinnest front court of the Self Era right now. If those two guys join the team, then Kansas returns as a heavy favorite to make the Final Four.
If. If. If.
Yeah, if those don’t happen, Kansas is still 9-2 without those players with wins over Kentucky and Syracuse away from Allen Fieldhouse. At one point on Monday, Texas and TCU were losing at home to Texas Southern and Tennessee State. Kansas beat those teams by a combined score of 79 points.
It’s much easier, and likely to predict, that Kansas will go 9-0 at home then to say they’ll go 7-2. Kansas has lost just two Big 12 games at home since 2014.
Time and time again Self figures out the ills of his team during conference play. A few years ago it was plugging Landon Lucas into the starting rotation over Cheick Diallo, and Kansas went to the Elite Eight. The year before that Kelly Oubre went from struggling freshman to difference maker.
The difference this year is Self doesn’t have players he can just plug and see if they work. But he’s done it before. Look at 2011-2012 season, when Kansas lost three likely rotation players before the season, and Self had to rely on a junior who had never played a major role to be the man. They went to the Final Four that year and made the championship game. Thomas Robinson was the Big 12 Player of the Year.
Why they’ll tie for the league title: Because I don’t see a single easy road game in the Big 12 and it’s very likely Kansas loses three or for games on the road. Plus they always get everyone’s best shot.
Why I think they at least tie for a league title: Because they are most likely team to go to a place like Norman and win (remember they beat Buddy Hield in Norman two years ago).
The Jayhawks also start two seniors who have played in two Elite Eight games and won the Big 12 Tournament as sophomores. Devonte’ Graham (2016 Big 12 Tournament POY) and Svi Mykhailiuk have seen it all while Jayhawks.
Will Malik Newman do what Oubre did and breakout during Big 12 play? Will Udoka Azubuike get even better in conference play?
Lots of questions, but Kansas usually answers them in Big 12 play, which is why this would be the 14th straight title if they won.
I don’t know if Preston or De Sousa become eligible this season. If they do, Kansas has a much better chance of matching last year’s 16-2 conference record. If not, maybe it’s a 13-5 record like in 2015. A year in which they still won the league with a game to spare.