Here are 12 big things I’ve noticed about one of college basketball’s best leagues.
12. What’s wrong with Texas Tech?
The Red Raiders were 15-1 a week ago.
Now they join the likes of Texas, Oklahoma State and West Virginia as teams who have lost three straight league games this season.
Texas Tech’s problems were alive and well when the Red Raiders were rolling. It’s awesome to have the best defense in college basketball, but teams have to score, and right now the Red Raiders are ranked No. 139 offensively at Kenpom, the worst in the league. For all the complaints people have about Texas’ offense, the Longhorns are nearly a 100 slots better than the Red Raiders at No. 45.
The issue isn’t that Texas Tech is void of good offensive players. Jarrett Culver, Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney are effective players on that end, but two of those players are inconsistent and another is being game-planned against as the team’s best player. Texas Tech needs to look more at Tariq Owens (8.3 ppg. on 54 percent shooting) and they need more from post player Norense Odiase (3.9 ppg.).
What really makes an offense great isn’t just having good shooters, but having guys who can get easy baskets underneath. Kansas has it in Dedric Lawson, TCU has it in Kevin Samuel and Iowa State is at its best when Michael Jacobson is doing it for the Cyclones.
This is the first true test of adversity for Chris Beard at Texas Tech.
Last year the Red Raiders were such a surprise and then suffered a massive injury that no one should have or did blame Beard for Tech letting the league slip though its fingers. He still led the Red Raiders to the Elite Eight. And while Tech had modest expectations entering this season, picked sixth in the Big 12 preseason poll, they quickly pumped up the expectations with a 15-1 start.
The problems many suspect in the preseason are there. Beard has to figure how to fix them. Had Texas Tech played a non-conference schedule that wasn’t ranked 338th at Kenpom, maybe he would have figured it out before conference play.
It’s dumb to write off Texas Tech because of a slide in January, but the league seems to be adjusting to where most thought it would be in November, the state of Kansas owning the league, Iowa State vastly improved and TCU as good as any team. With two games against Kansas and TCU in to come, and rematches in Ames against ISU and Baylor in Lubbock, Tech still has plenty of gas left to make a run for the Big 12 title, but it won’t do it with average rebounding (last in offensive rebounding in the league) and only five made 3-pointers a game.
11. Coach of the Year leader?
Bruce Weber would be my Big 12 Coach of the Year pick right now as Kansas State has turned around its season with wins over Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. The 20-point loss at home to Texas is one of the worst losses of the season, but given how Iowa State has played and how they project, there may not be another team in the league who will beat the Cyclones in Hilton Coliseum. And Kansas State was pretty close to sweeping Texas Tech if not for a disastrous start in Lubbock. And it’s not all because Dean Wade returned.
The season flipped when the Wildcats made their epic comeback against WVU earlier this month and they’ve been the best team in league because Barry Brown has played like an All-American. Brown has made the Big 12 Player of the Year race a three-man sprint at this point, and I’d put him ahead of Culver and trailing only Lawson.
Weber deserves this award because he could have lost his team and his fan base after an uninspiring non-conference performance and 0-2 start to league play.
I think for Weber to secure this award, though, he’s going to have beat Kansas at least once and he may even have to win the league, because as deep as the league is, the COY award should be headed to the guy who leads his team through the gauntlet.
10. Defensive Player of the Year leader
My pick would be Kansas sophomore Marcus Garrett.
The guard from Dallas Skyline High School has taken up the league’s mantle that Jevon Carter had for four years as the league’s best defender. The difference is Garrett can guard all five positions.
Brown was recently added to the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year watch and Garrett wasn’t. Brown is terrific, but he can’t defend the variety of positions Garrett can and certainly hasn’t drawn the assignments Garrett has this season.
Jaxson Hayes at Texas gives the Longhorns a tremendous shot-blocker, but Garrett does more.
In a league with so many great team defenses, only one guy truly takes him team from a below average defensive unit to a good defensive squad, and that’s Garrett.
9. First and Second team All-Big 12 picks
With seven games in, here are my 10 best players in the Big 12, when just looking at Big 12 play:
Dedric Lawson, Kansas
Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
Barry Brown, Kansas State
Marial Shayok, Iowa State
Alex Robinson, TCU
Thoughts: Lawson is the Player of the Year so far (more below), Culver is the best future pro, Shayok is the league’s best scorer, Brown is on pace to be an All-American and the best defender of these five and Alex Robinson leads the conference with more than six assists a game along with 15 ppg.
LaGerald Vick, Kansas
Jaxson Hayes, Texas
Marcus Garrett, Kansas
Makai Mason, Baylor
Desmond Bane, TCU
Thoughts: Bane is the third-leading scorer in the conference at more than 18 ppg., Hayes is shooting 77.4 percent from the field and blocking 2.8 shots, Garrett has been the league’s best defender and has raised his average to 10.9 ppg., Mason is the reason Baylor is surprising as he averages more than 18 ppg. and Vick, though inconsistent, is shooting more than 43 percent from 3-point.
The players I’d watch the next month and half would be Dean Wade at Kansas State (the preseason player of the year in the conference), Christian James at Oklahoma (the Sooners would love this), Derek Culver at WVU (a force of nature in the paint) and Matt Mooney, the second best player at Texas Tech.
8. The Player of the Year race
Lawson and Culver were the early front runners, but Brown is the player who can most likely knock off Mr. Double-Double Dedric Lawson. Looking only at conference games, the Memphis transfer is tied with Shayok with a 19.3 points per game average and leads the conference with 11.1 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 54.7 percent from the field and is even third in the league in blocks with 1.6 per game. His rebounding is what makes him the POY, as he does it at both ends with 7.7 defensive rebounds and 4.4 offensive rebounds.
The main reason he’s here? He’s the most indispensable and reliable player in the league to his team.
Shayok is fourth on my POY list. If there’s a dark-horse to emerge as POY it’s Desmond Bane and Alex Robinson of TCU. The reality is if Kansas doesn’t win the league, Lawson won’t win this award. He’ll win Newcomer of the Year, likely, but the honor will go to the best player on the team that dethrones Kansas.
7. The standings
Kansas (16-3, 5-2)
Kansas State (15-4, 5-2)
Baylor (12-6, 4-2)
Texas Tech (15-4, 4-3)
Iowa State (14-5, 4-3)
TCU (14-4, 3-3)
Oklahoma (14-5, 3-4)
Texas (11-8, 3-4)
Oklahoma State 8-11, 2-5)
West Virginia (9-10, 1-6)
6. One big thing to watch next week
Kansas heads to Austin for a game that would be monumental for coach Shaka Smart and Texas. Sure it’s nice to beat a rival like OU at home, but Texas beating the king of the conference would be the biggest step taken for Smart and Texas. The coach is still seeking his first win over Jayhawks after alluding to KU in his first press conference at Texas way back in 2015.
Baylor-OU is intriguing, but the game to watch next week is TCU at Texas Tech.
We’re at the point were Texas Tech not playing great at home in conference play is an issue and now they’re losing road games. At the same time, TCU needs a signature win. Plus, TCU is 31st offensively at Kenpom, so it’s another fun matchup between two conflicting styles. Texas Tech will need to make shots to win this one.
5. SEC-Big 12 Challenge, low tier games
Of the 10 games, here are four you don’t have to watch closely.
Arkansas (11-7) at Texas Tech: This could be the most lopsided game of the challenge. Arkansas looks like one of the leading candidates to have a new coach next season. Sound major warning alarms if Tech loses this home game.
Texas at Georgia (9-9): Sell all your Shaka Smart-Texas stock if the Longhorns don’t win in Athens. The Bulldogs are, eh, not good.
West Virginia at Tennessee (17-1): Who knew that one of the best matchups on paper in November would be one of the worst matchups in practice. If WVU wins, it’s one of the biggest upsets of the season.
Kansas State at Texas A&M (7-10) : The Aggies are not good at basketball this season and Kansas State is very good.
4. Better but not great games
South Carolina (10-8) at Oklahoma State: The Gamecocks should win, and perhaps they should win big. After all, OK-State is poised to be the worst team in the league after dismissing three players last week and holding walk-on tryouts. South Carolina, meanwhile, is one of the early surprises of the SEC season, but they’re just two games above .500. This is a home game for the Big 12 that the league can win.
Oklahoma at Vanderbilt (9-9): OU is slumping but are a better team than Vanderbilt, who thought they would have am NBA Lottery pick playing point guard (Darius Garland) but he’s hurt and gone to the NBA. Vandy took Tennessee to overtime on Wednesday, so the squad isn’t a complete pushover and there are future NBA players at Vandy. OU meanwhile rallied to beat OSU by nine on the road. This is a borderline bad game, but Vandy won its challenge last season.
Alabama (12-6) at Baylor: The Crimson Tide upset Kentucky a few games ago and while they’re a bubble team at this point, they should push a surging Baylor team that has begun playing like a team that wants to make the NCAA Tournament. It’s a good transfer battle as Texas transfer Tevin Mack for Alabama and Mason (from Yale) are two of the better players who will be on the court.
3. Good game to watch, not the best game of the contest though
Florida (11-7) at TCU: The Gators aren’t having a typical season and may not make the tournament, but this is still Florida and the Gators have talent. TCU should win and this matchup is a good barometer of where TCU is at as a program. Remember, last season TCU fell flat in this challenge game against Vanderbilt.
2. The best games of the challenge
Iowa State at Ole Miss (14-4): Ole Miss is the out-from-nowhere great team in the country, like Tennessee was in 2018. Coach Kermit Davis was kind of stuck at Middle Tennessee State the last few years because some schools were worried about hiring an older coach (he’s 59) but it’s been the best hire of the year. Iowa State looks like the deepest and maybe the most complete team in the Big 12. They’ve already won in Lubbock and led Kansas by eight in the second half in Lawrence before the Jayhawks rallied, so they’ve been tested on the road.
Kansas at Kentucky (15-3): I actually think this game may not be the best game of the slate and could, perhaps, get ugly if Kansas let’s Kentucky get an early lead.
But any time two hall of fame coaches and two of the four or five most important programs in the sport play each other, it’s going to be No. 1. Not many people thought KU would win in Rupp two years ago when the Jayhawks were playing a seven-man rotation and Kentucky had three lottery picks, but KU won. Kansas has won three in a row against Kentucky, which would matter if players actually stayed long enough at Kentucky for that to sting.
The Wildcats are entering the game having beaten back-to-back top 25 teams and are starting to look like the team many thought were the tournament favorites in November. Interesting stat: Kansas is already 2-0 against UK senior Reid Travis, who scored 12 and 29 (in Allen Fieldhouse) points in two games against KU when he was at Stanford.
1. Who wins the challenge?
My scorecard reads 7-3, Big 12. TCU, Baylor and OU are at home and should win. Kansas State is better than Texas A&M in every way and Texas Tech shouldn’t have trouble with Arkansas. Texas can’t afford to lose to another bad Kenpom team (Georgia is No. 116).
The swing game is Iowa State at Ole Miss. The Rebels (No. 40 at Kenpom) will likely be favored in that game, but they haven’t played a team as good as ISU (No. 14 at Kenpom) this season. For the SEC, South Carolina should beat a struggling Oklahoma State team in Stillwater and Tennessee has to feel good about playing WVU at home after watching the Mountaineers lose by a combined 43 points to Baylor and TCU.
Kentucky (No. 8 at Kenpom) is playing better than Kansas (No. 9 at Kenpom) and the Jayhawks are 1-3 on the road this season with losses to WVU (85th at Kenpom) and Arizona State (60th at Kenpom). Kentucky gets a lot of shine back in the eyes of national college basketball writers with a win.
On the flip side, if Kansas wins, the Jayhawks would have the best three wins in American (neutral wins over Tennessee and Michigan State and a road win at Kentucky). At the end of the day, though, the Wildcats (who are favored) should win this one.