Men's Basketball

12 Big things about Big 12 basketball: Challenge accepted, SEC

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Posted January 25th, 2018

Each week I give you 12 things to know about Big 12 men’s basketball. Here’s last week’s column. 

Lon Kruger, 2020.

Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger reacts during the second half of a game against TCU earlier this month. (AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck)

12. Lon Kruger: Perception vs. reality

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger out-coached Bill Self on Tuesday in Norman during the Sooners’ come-from-behind victory over the first-place Kansas Jayhawks, 85-80.

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It was a good reminder, and the first reminder during this season’s Big 12 play, that Kruger is the second-best coach in the league.

For all the writers killing Trae Young for his inefficient play, like me, and poor shot selection, like me, Kruger deserved more criticism than Young. After all, he is the coach and in no sport does a coach have more control than in college basketball — it’s why college coaches are divas compared to the workman-like career NBA coaches.

Kruger could have done something to protect Young from himself in the Kansas State and Oklahoma State games.

Which is why Tuesday was such a great night for Kruger and Young. The Oklahoma freshman had his best game of the Big 12 season and possibly his college career. Rarely can a college player —  let alone a freshman — control an entire game with his passing. And on the sideline, Kruger pulled the strings he had to.

Kruger’s decision — with his team being outplayed at home by a Kansas team humming despite its best player scoring just 11 points (Devonte’ Graham) — to start fouling Udoka Azubuike with more than five minutes to play was genius.

Bill Self benches players when they make mistakes or don’t play hard. A guy doesn’t fight for a rebound and lets his man get the possession, that player is heading to the bench. A guy misses a defensive assignment based on a well-detailed scouting report Kansas is known for, and you’ll see that player head to the doghouse. But Self will stick with a cold hand if that player is competing. Kruger dared Self to take out his best big man on Tuesday in crunch time. When that same big man wasn’t on the floor, OU outscore Kansas 22-10 in the first half. With him, Kansas was in control all night. But that big man is a 41 percent free throw shooter.

Self didn’t take him out — it’s because he believes that sends the wrong message to the player.

Kansas probably lost because of that, or they lost because Brady Manek and Young made huge shots at the end of the game — the Young shot was on good defense. The Manek shot, as detailed by Jesse Newel of the Kansas City Star, was the real dagger and that was on a blown defensive assignment.

I’ve written before that Lon Kruger is the second-best coach in the league, and he’s as worthy of future Hall of Fame consideration as any coach in the country who has been to multiple Final Fours without actually ever winning the title.

And this is perception vs. reality that lead to Kruger being underrated.

He hardly ever gets thrown into the conversation as a “top 10 coach.” Maybe that’s fair. But he’s often overlooked when pundits expand that number.

And if you asked more casual fans “who is better, Bob Huggins or Lon Kruger” I would find most would say Huggins.

Reality is that while Huggins has nearly 230 more wins than Kruger (835 to 604), 71 of those wins came at NAIA Walsh and Kruger left for three years to coach in the NBA and three times took over major programs that needed rebuilding. Huggins has a big personality. Kruger is the definition of modesty. Reality is had Kruger stayed in college basketball and maybe even stayed at Illinois and before that Kansas State, his win total would be right there with Huggins.

Kruger’s career is full of curious coaching decisions. He became the head coach of his alma mater Kansas State in 1986 after going 52-59 in four seasons at Texas Pan-American, but was 20-9 in his final season. At Kansas State, he was 81-46 in four seasons. The Wildcats went to the Elite Eight in 1988, his second season. He was coming off a 17-15 year when he left Kansas State, but he also had just led Kansas State to the tournament for the fourth straight season.

He left for Florida after that. Not the Florida program we know today, but the Florida program that was a little over .500 during the 1980s and was coming off a 7-21 season and 3-15 SEC record. He was the third coach in three seasons when he arrived. He took that program to a Final Four in 1994.

Two years after that he left again, this time for one of the best jobs — at the time — in the country, Illinois. That is the only job he took that didn’t need serious retooling. In a roundabout way, Kruger gave birth to the Bill Self Era at Kansas, because after Kruger left for the Atlanta Hawks, it was mostly players that Kruger recruited that helped Self to a dominating 3-year run in Champaign that made him the best candidate Kansas could hire in 2003.

Because Kruger failed in the NBA (69-122 overall), and then spent a decade at UNLV before getting back into a power conference, people seem to sleep on how good Kruger is, even after taking Oklahoma to a Final Four two years ago.

On Tuesday, Kruger reminded everyone that he’s one of the best.

Mo Bamba (4) celebrates a slam dunk during the Longhorns’ win over Iowa State Monday. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/ American-Statesman)

11. Homebodies of the Big 12

Big 12 teams went 8-2 on the road to start conference play. Since then home teams are 21-3. Three teams are winless on the road, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Iowa State, and those winless teams are all at the bottom of the standings. Unsurprising that the only team with a winning record on the road, 3-1, is the first-place team, Kansas, who nearly went to 4-0 on Tuesday if it weren’t for, well, re-read the above section.

10. Tweet of the week

If you’re going to storm the court, TCU fans, go big or go home and make the storming fine worth something. Don’t do this (I mean, don’t do it all, but that’s another column):

9. Who had the best week?

Nothing has changed!

Kansas State is the only team in the Big 12 that went 2-0 since last Thursday and are now 3-0 since losing by one point at Kansas. The Wildcats are 3-1 since losing Kamau Stokes and picked up a rare road win when they beat Baylor in Waco on Monday.

Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton reacts to play on the court during the second half of the Cowboys’ loss versus Texas Tech. (Photo by John Weast/Getty Images)

8. Toughest week ahead

Oklahoma State nearly pulled off the road win against Texas Tech on Tuesday. The Cowboys led by 12 points at halftime in Lubbock. Tech needed a 50-point half to beat OSU 75-70, dropping the Cowboys to 0-4 on the road in Big 12 play.

Now the Cowboys have one of the tougher Big 12-SEC Challenge games, on the road against Arkansas and follow that with a home game against a TCU team that will be looking for a road win. OSU is a team that always seems on the verge of being lumped with Iowa State as squads I can confidently say will probably not be in the NCAA Tournament field. But then they’ll beat Oklahoma at home (like Iowa State did against Tech) and I’m back to square one.

Now if OSU beats Arkansas, and wow, that gives them two of the best non-conference wins in the Big 12 (road wins against Arkansas and Florida State) and they have an outside shot at making the tournament with just eight Big 12 wins. Lose, and that becomes difficult. Lose that and TCU, and it becomes almost impossible.

OSU’s best shot at making the tournament is to continue it’s great home record (3-1 at Gallagher-Iba Arena).

Kansas State guard Cartier Diarra falls on Baylor guard Manu Lecomte while grabbing a rebound in the first half of the Wildcats’ road win Monday. (Waco Tribune-Herald via AP)

7. This week’s ‘Kansas Dethroner Power Ranking Leader’ :

Kansas has won 13 straight Big 12 titles. It’s ridiculous — especially on senior night at Phog Allen Field House when it takes a row of tables to contain all the trophies they trot out for post-game ceremonies (I’ve seen it live, it is indeed ridiculously impressive).  But who is going to end it?

Here’s my No. 1 team in this week’s streak-ender power ranking:

Kansas State.

They are the only other team outside of the Jayhawks who have won on the road since the first week of conference play and they nearly beat the Jayhawks a few weeks ago.

No team in the Big 12 is playing better than the Wildcats right now. If they beat Georgia at home this Saturday — they should — they’ll be on a four-game winning streak.

Oklahoma’s Trae Young (11) drives the ball past Kansas’s Udoka Azubuike during the second half of the Sooners’ win Monday. (AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck)

6. Best Jan. 29-Jan. 31 game

Kansas travels to Kansas State. It’ll be for a share of first-place in the league and a rematch of one of the best conference games so far.

Second best? Texas and Texas Tech play a rematch on Jan. 31. Last time they played, Texas came away a 67-58 winner. It’s the final game of the first half of Big 12 play, if Texas can find away to win, it changes the narrative of the conference outlook the rest of the way while sending Tech on a downward trend and Texas on the up-and-up.

WEEKEND PREVIEWS IN 5 TIERS:

TCU guard Kenrich Williams (34) celebrates a three-pointer during a NCAA college basketball game against Texas in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Nick Wagner/ American-Statesman

5. The lame games

10. Texas vs. Ole Miss

Read about this one here.

9. Georgia vs. Kansas State

The Bulldogs are 12-7 overall and 3-5 in SEC play. This is not good for their head coach Mark Fox who had to fight to keep his job after last season. They are the No. 67-ranked team in KenPom and have a good defense, but Kansas State has played better defenses in conference play so far (losing to West Virginia and Texas Tech). Georgia, No. 29 defensively at KenPom, are one point better than Kansas, No. 30, who Kansas State has also played. This is lame because Kansas State should just play Missouri if the conferences won’t let the Border War commence.

8. TCU at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt is 7-13 overall and 2-6 in conference play. The Commodores aren’t good and are ranked 102 at KenPom.

I see a team from the state of Texas in the SEC. I see four teams from the state of Texas in the Big 12.

Do better, schedulers.

Brandone Francis #1 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders reacts on the court to making a three-point basket during the second half of the game against the Oklahoma State Tuesday. (Photo by John Weast/Getty Images)

4. Games that will matter on Selection Sunday if the SEC team wins

7. Texas Tech vs. South Carolina 

The Gamecocks are 12-7 overall and 3-4 in conference play. They have a win over Kentucky and enter this game coming off a win over Florida at home, 77-72 on Wednesday. They can get on an even bigger roll with a victory over another ranked team. When March comes, the Selection Committee would notice all the AP ranked wins, and a win over a ranked AP team from the highest-rated conference potentially would edge them over other bubble teams — if that what South Carolina even is by that time.

6. Kentucky vs. West Virginia 

I know this is the marquee game of the challenge, and it should be, but Kentucky is struggling and will have little chance in this game if they play like they have the last couple weeks. The Wildcats are 15-5 but just 5-3 in SEC play and lost at Rupp Arena last Saturday to Florida. In West Virginia’s last home game the Mountaineers beat a freshman-dominated team by 35 points.

Yes, on paper this is the best game, but in reality, this could get ugly.

Kentucky needs this game. They’re going to make the tournament (are they?) but the Cats needs some top 50 KenPom wins.

Baylor head coach Scott Drew, left, talks with forward Mark Vital during Monday’s loss to Kansas State. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP)

3. Games that will matter on Selection Sunday if the Big 12 team wins

5. Baylor at Florida

The strength of the Big 12 comes through when Baylor, tied for last in the league and 12-8 overall, can face the SEC’s best team, at 6-1 in conference and 14-5 overall, and I think Baylor has a good shot at winning. The Bears are coming off its worst game of the season in the loss to Kansas State. That was at home and Kansas State blitzed them from the start. Baylor never recovered. Combine that with Baylor being 0-4 on the road, that’s not good for their hopes this weekend.

But the Bears are far more likely, because they have more talent than Iowa State to rebound and make a run in the second half of league play. A road win against the team that looks like the future SEC Champions would be a boon to Baylor’s tournament odds, and the two teams aren’t that far apart at KenPom: Baylor is No. 44, Florida is 23.

Fun fact: There are only three SEC teams ranked in the top 25 at KenPom right now. One of them is not in the challenge (Auburn). The other got sent to Hilton Coliseum.

4. Oklahoma State at Arkansas

Arkansas is No. 43 at KenPom. Oklahoma State is No. 63. A win over Arkansas on the road would give OSU two of the best road non-conference wins in the league and potentially help their NCAA case if the Cowboys can get to eight Big 12 wins (which would be difficult).

3. Tennessee at Iowa State

A sneaky good game?

Iowa State is the last-place team in the Big 12. Tennessee, coached by Rick Barnes, is 14-5 and 5-3 in SEC play and the surprise team in the league. The Vols weren’t supposed to be this good this season. However, while Iowa State has lost several times at home this season, the Cyclones recently beat a Texas Tech team by 18 points in Hilton and that game against Texas was closer than the 16 points would have you believe.

Point? Tennessee is in for a fight against the Cyclones. Yes, statistics say Tennessee rolls as ISU is No. 99 at KenPom and Tennessee is No. 14, but Iowa State is a completely different team at home these days.

Texas A&M forward Robert Williams (44) works to move the ball to the basket against LSU forward Aaron Epps (21) Tuesday. (Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP)

2. The one game that could change the season for the winner

2. Texas A&M at Kansas

The last two seasons Kansas has used wins over Kentucky to spring board them to No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and Big 12 titles. Last season the Jayhawks rallied and beat Kentucky in regulation. The year before, with Kansas coming off a massive loss to Iowa State, the Jayhawks beat the Wildcats in overtime and didn’t lose again until the Elite Eight, to the eventual national champion Villanova.

I say that because a win over Kansas would potentially change Texas A&M’s season. 

While the Texas Longhorns haven’t been as great as some some thought this season, at least they aren’t massively under-performing like the Aggies, who crushed West Virginia in the first game of the season but have fallen to 13-7 overall and 2-6 in SEC play. This was an A&M team that was being billed potentially as the best Aggie squad ever. They had a preseason NBA projected lottery pick (Robert Williams), loaded front court and had all the momentum after beating WVU.

Now it’s a wonder if coach Billy Kennedy is safe after this train wreck of a season that’s gone from awesome to terrible in two months.

If Kansas loses, yeah the commonwealth of Kansas will freak out and there will be articles written “What’s the matter with Kansas at home” and maybe some mocking “Pay heed” tweets, but the Jayhawks still own a one-game lead in the thing that matters: the conference.

A&M winning could be the shot in the arm that changes their season and give them wins over two of the four best teams in the Big 12.

Oklahoma’s Rashard Odomes (1) reacts as Khadeem Lattin (3) and Kansas’s Malik Newman (14) look on during the second half of the Sooners’ win on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck)

1. The best game of the challenge

1. Oklahoma at Alabama

How could any NBA team take the talented Collin Sexton over Trae Young if Young dominates him on Saturday?

Vice versa if Sexton schools Young.

We rarely get these type of one-on-one-one-and-done matchups.

But what if Sexton doesn’t play? Welp. This game isn’t nearly as good, but Sexton did return to the court on Tuesday (was 2-of-13 from the field) after  battling through an abdominal injury.

The Tide are 13-7 overall, but 5-3 in the SEC. They reeled four straight wins before losing Tuesday 78-66 to Ole Miss. They have lost to Texas already this season, so they have a taste of Big 12 play.

OU, meanwhile, has not been great on the road, 1-3 in Big 12, and their last two road games ended in an 18-point loss and an overtime loss.

Alabama is team that is quietly having a disappointing season. Unlike A&M, whose issues steam from suspensions, Alabama’s are injury related. If you’re Alabama, it was a good sign seeing Sexton return a game before this matchup to get his feet wet.

Oklahoma doesn’t have all that much to gain. A win over a Crimson Tide team that is far from a likely tournament squad won’t be that sexy for the selection committee. But a loss could be the difference in a top seed for the Sooners because there’s a chance Alabama’s season still craters.

There’s also a chance that like Texas A&M, a win here changes their entire season.

Predictions?

The Big 12 cruises just like did in the traditional non-conference season.

The biggest potential upset is Tech on the road at South Carolina. Ole Miss beating Alabama doesn’t change my thoughts on the Longhorns’ chances. Ole Miss is below average and Texas should have the biggest win of the day. Kansas losing to Texas A&M shouldn’t surprise people — it would — because the Jayhawks don’t matchup well against the under-performing but loaded with talent Aggies, but Kansas is still at home.

ESPN’s game projector sees it as 6-4 with the Big 12 winning the challenges. The computers give a slight edge to Alabama over Oklahoma and Tennessee will be the favorite in Ames.

I think the Big 12 goes 8-2 with the losses being Baylor at Florida and Oklahoma State at Arkansas.

 

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