12. Games to watch this weekend
I’m changing the column format this week for some holiday fun. First, before the league heads into the Christmas break, here are five games to watch Saturday.
- Kansas at Villanova, 11 a.m., FOX
- Texas at Providence, 1 p.m. FOX
- Xavier at TCU, 4 p.m., ESPN2
- Oklahoma State vs. Minnesota in Tulsa, 4:30 p.m., ESPN2
- Saint Louis vs. Kansas State in Kansas City, 6 p.m., ESPN+
The first three games on this list are vitally important for the Big 12-Big East Challenge (see below).
But it’s the last two games on here are that are sneaky good. Minnesota lost to Oklahoma last month but the Gophers just beat Ohio State, then the No. 3-ranked team. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State scored a big road win over Houston on Sunday.
Kansas State’s season is spiraling. The Wildcats have yet to beat a team that’s better than them and they’ve yet to beat a team that’s about equal to them. That’s not good. Saint Louis (9-2) is a decent team from the Atlantic 10 conference and coached by former Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford. But they’re No. 96 at Kenpom. If the Octagon is still a scary place to play, the Wildcats should have enough to win this, but they’ve not been great this season.
11. Beasts of the East
The conference challenge resumed and concludes this week.
Oklahoma played Creighton close for 25 minutes in Omaha. Then the Sooners fell behind and lost 83-73.
The Big East is handing it to the Big 12. The Sooners join Kansas State, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech as losers in the first year of the challenge. Sure the Big 12 has a chance to tie, but to do that it’ll need to win two road games and beat one of the conference’s best teams.
The big matchup is first thing Saturday morning with the league’s marquee programs going head-to-head for the fourth time since 2016. Villanova beat Kansas in the Elite Eight and in the Final Four’s national semifinal games in 2016 and 2018 — both years Nova won the national championship.
Kansas won in Allen Fieldhouse last season, but Villanova played the Jayhawks close and it was one of the early signs that Kansas wasn’t as good as projected, especially without Udoka Azubuike. Kansas still won 74-71, but Villanova entered the game 7-3.
This year Villanova will have to contend with Azubuike and a better, more complete Kansas team. Hurting the Jayhawks is this curse inflicting the No. 1-ranked team in the country, which dropped to 6-4 across four different teams after Texas Tech beat Louisville last week.
I suspect the game of this year’s challenge will happen in Providence, though. Despite the 9-1 record, Texas hasn’t run on all cylinders since beating Purdue on the road in November. The Longhorns started slow in its last game — trailing Central Michigan at home for nearly 30 minutes last weekend — and now face a Providence team that is 6-6 overall, but 5-2 at home.
Providence is not good, folks.
The Friars have lost to Penn, Long Beach State, Charleston, Rhode Island and Northwestern. They are ranked No. 88 at Kenpom. They lost 83-51 on Tuesday to Florida on a neutral floor.
On the surface, this shouldn’t be a big game, right? Texas ought to roll. Ranked No. 46 at Kenpom, the Longhorns are better in every way than Providence right now.
But this is Texas. And I wrote the same thing about the Texas-Georgetown game a few weeks ago.
The Longhorns need to win games like this — and frankly do it impressively — to change the underachieving perception this program has had for a decade, not just the Shaka Smart-era Longhorns.
If TCU can upset Xavier, then that’s one of the best wins of the whole challenge for any team in this contest. But It’s probably the most far-fetched. Xavier is 9-2 and better than TCU.
What the Big 12 teams want for Christmas
10. Kansas State (6-4)
SHOOTING: The Wildcats are tied for 231st in field goal percentage nationally, shooting 42.6 percent as a team. It’s a big reason why the team is No. 193 in offensive efficiency at Kenpom. Cartier Diarra is a big reason why the team is struggling. He’s shooting 38.5% from the field and 22.2% from 3-point range and he has taken the second-most shots on the team. His numbers aren’t that much worse than Xavier Sneed, who has shot the most times on the team and is only shooting 41.4% from the field and 34% from 3-point range, but Diarra is taking more bad shots. It also doesn’t help that he’s shooting 62.2% from the free throw line while also leading the team in free throw attempts.
How to fix this: I’d start by getting Mike McGuirl more shots (23-of-47 from the field) and post player Makol Mawien more touches (just 68 shot attempts).
The silver-lining on K-State, and even for Diarra, is the Wildcats still play great defense for coach Bruce Weber (No. 24 at Kenpom). Diarra has 22 steals on the season and the team has 97 overall — 9.7 per game. They hold teams to 39.5% shooting.
But they don’t take advantage, shooting just 42.6%.
9. Iowa State (6-4)
MORE FROM THE FRONT COURT: People remember those Fred Hoiberg teams fondly because they played fast and shot the three, but the secret to their success was George Niang was a very good post player who could shoot and the bigs were active. Iowa State doesn’t play that exact style anymore, but they need more from the front court.
Michael Jacobson is the key player on this team. Dating back to last season, when he played well, the Cyclones played well.
Iowa State should be better in the front court this season with Jacobson, George Conditt and Solomn Young all available. Yet, Iowa State is getting outrebounded on the year, Conditt is shooting 72.4 percent from the field but has only shot it 58 times and the big guys aren’t fouling.
That’s a good thing, right? Post players not picking up a lot of fouls can be a sign that they aren’t playing aggressive enough, which shows on the rebound margin.
Conditt probably unlocks all this. He’s so impressive on the pick-and-roll game with do-it all star Tyrese Haliburton and he’s averaging 3.0 blocks a game. Yet, he comes off the bench behind Jacobson and Young and plays just 17.9 minutes a game. I have no idea what Conditt is like in practice and Steve Prohm is a smart coach, but it seems like Conditt is begging to play more with those numbers.
And with Iowa State having lost to just about every good team its played this season, why not try something different?
8. No. 24 Texas Tech (7-3)
Ja’HEALTHmus: Every team gets hurt, but not every team loses its biggest difference maker to injury — but it does happen to at least one team every season. Last season it was Kansas with Azubuike. This year the biggest injury thus far has been to Texas Tech’s talented freshman Jahmi’us Ramsey.
For starters, it’s not an apples to apples comparison to his injury, a hamstring issue, and Azubuike’s was a season-ending wrist surgery. Ramsey’s injury isn’t season-ending. At least it doesn’t appear so as he’s been a game-time decision ever since he suffered it and is nearing a return.
Ramsey didn’t play against Southern Mississippi on Monday, but it seems as though he’ll be back soon.
And that Southern Mississippi game showed that Texas Tech needs him. Southern Miss entered that game 3-8 overall and led by seven at halftime in Lubbock and didn’t lose that lead till there was fewer than 10 minutes to play. In fact, Southern Miss never let Tech pull away and was down only a possession with fewer than two minutes left.
Southern Miss is not good. They have a loss to 6-point loss to South Alabama and a 73-45 loss to Iowa State.
But Tech did win. Thanks to Davide Moretti getting hot in the second half.
The Red Raiders haven’t been terrible without Ramsey, but they did lose twice in overtime. They also knocked off the No. 1 team in the nation, Louisville. They clearly need him to avoid games in which most of the roster is playing down to the competition, like against Southern Miss.
His injury was sort of a blessing for Tech because its allowed the other freshman, Terrance Shannon, to not just play more but excel. He was named Big 12 Freshman of the Week and has been on fire of late, scoring 18 on Monday.
Put Ramsey and Shannon together on the floor and Texas Tech could match the seventh-ranked defense at Kenpom with a top-20 offense.
Or it could mess up chemistry. You never know. Tech has had the excuse the last few games that they were missing their leading scorer, but Ramsey didn’t face a single tough opponent in the games he played in and when he did he left with the injury while shooting 3-of-10 from the floor after playing 27 minutes against Iowa. It’s a stretch to say Ramsey makes Tech a bona fide title contender when he returns, but holy smokes he should make them better.
7. Oklahoma (7-3)
REBOUNDS: Well, the Oklahoman wrote it better than I can.
In the Creighton game, OU was outrebounded 46- 41. Senior Kristian Doolittle is the Sooners’ leading rebounder at nine a game, but he’s a wing.
But wait! There’s a catch!
The Sooners are playing four wings at one time and forward Brady Manek (averaging 5.9 rebounds) is kind of, sort of, playing center. OU isn’t just playing small, they’re playing “we don’t have a true post player we trust” small ball.
I don’t know how this will work in a conference with the bigs at Kansas, Baylor, Texas and West Virginia. Maybe it’s an advantage because those guys have to guard the interchangeable lineup OU has. But Oklahoma is shooting just 32% from 3-point range. That’s tied for 211th in the nation.
If you’re playing without any posts, not rebounding and are an average at best 3-point shooting team, there are going to be issues.
6. TCU (8-2)
KEEP IT UP: TCU is one of seven Big 12 teams ranked in the top 30 defensively at Kempom. It goes to eight if we expand top 40. Playing top 50 defense can lead a team to the tournament.
R.J. Nembhard averaged just 4.4 points per game last season for TCU. He’s not only averaging 12.9 points now, but also averaging 31.4 minutes a game, up from 17.1.
I point those out because TCU and Nembhard have done that against a non-conference schedule ranked 309 out of 353.
The two loses that TCU has were against the only two quality teams the Horned Frogs have played: Clemson (5-5, No. 100 at Kenpom) and USC (9-2 and No. 68). Of the eight wins TCU has, the highest-ranked team is No. 169 Winthrop, a 4-7 team from the Big South.
For Christmas TCU is asking if it can keep it up against a schedule that’s about to include Xavier this weekend, George Mason and then start Big 12 play at Kansas State. That’s a doable 2-1 and a realistic 3-0– the Xavier game is in Fort Worth– slate of games.
If they keep it up the current record isn’t just schedule related. NOTE: It’s probably schedule related.
5. Oklahoma State (8-2)
YOR OF THAT: Point guard Isaac Likekele didn’t play against Houston and I didn’t think OSU could win that game without him. It did. Why?
Likekele may not miss much more time — he is dealing with an illness — and with him and seniors Lindy Waters, Thomas Dziawaga and stretch forward Cameron McGriff, that’s as good of a top-four as any in the league outside of Lawrence and Waco.
Add the lanky 6-foot-10-inch, 235 pound Anei playing like he did against Houston, and the Cowboys are a tough team to beat. Anei is averaging a little more than 12 points a game with 6.3 rebounds. Against Houston, he went for 18, one point off the career high he had earlier this season in the blowout win over Syracuse. He’s a decent free throw shooter for his position at 72% and he’s showing that when he gets the touches, he can score consistently.
It’s the touches that are the issue. The touches and the minutes.
In loses to Georgetown and Wichita State, Anei had a combined seven shots and went 2-for-7 while playing just 18 and 13 minutes and fouling out in both games. In a 19-point loss to Wichita State, he played just 13 minutes and scored nine points.
Taking Anei out of OSU’s gameplan means the Cowboys are worse defensively and lack a dominant rebounder.
4. No. 25 West Virginia (9-1)
FREQUENT FLYER MILES: Well, this is on the list every year and for every WVU sport.
This weekend WVU goes to Youngstown. On Dec. 29, they play No. 5 Ohio State in Cleveland. Then the Mountaineers play at Kansas and at Oklahoma State to begin Big 12 play.
Opening the conference slate against the best team in the league and currently the No. 1-ranked team in the nation and No. 4-ranked team at Kenpom is a doozy. Following it up with a game against a hungry OSU squad is a double-doozy.
At least WVU is getting road tested. They lost at St. John’s earlier this month and travel to Ohio twice to play Ohio teams, one is a true road game.
Kansas won’t play its first true road game until Dec. 29 — though playing Villanova in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Arena seems like a road game — WVU will play its third when it heads to Lawrence. And while Pittsburgh, Youngstown State and at Madison Square Garden against St. John’s isn’t Allen Fieldhouse, it does help they’ve experienced an on-campus road game.
3. No. 10 Baylor Bears (9-1)
FINAL FOUR SHIRTS: Kansas is No. 1, hasn’t lost since the first game and are really good. The Jayhawks have had the second-best season in the league so far.
The Bears have wins over Villanova, Arizona and Butler. The only loss is a neutral floor in Anchorage, Alaska, against No. 22 Washington.
If there’s a coach in the league who has earned a Final Four run from the basketball gods it’s Scott Drew.
No coach has ever rebuilt a program the way he rebuilt Baylor. He’s been to the Elite Eight twice and Sweet 16 four times. There’s good and bad. He’s suffered massive upsets in the tournament but also has also gotten teams expected to not be good to be great. He’s just due.
He’s a due a Final Four. If we’re doling out Christmas gifts, Drew and Baylor want a Final Four because they have a team that is a legit Final Four contender.
The back court is loaded. The front court is loaded. They have shooters, they have defensive specialists and they have the ultimate “glue guy” in Mark Vital. Flo Thamba even looks like a guy who could turn into something special at times. They’ve done a lot without Tristan Clark playing that much, and Clark is supposed to be the true difference maker on the team.
Can they win the league? Are they better than Kansas? They certainly have the roster to match Kansas.
The Bears are good enough to think big this season.
2. Texas (9-1)
THE FOURTH MAN: Andrew Jones has been the head-turning story so far. Just the fact that he’s playing at all is why. The fact that he’s playing this well is amazing. Meanwhile, Matt Coleman has unlocked his next level and Jase Febres made seven 3-pointers against Central Michigan.
It’s time for the fourth guard to start playing like the guy I picked as a top-10 player in the league in October.
Sophomore guard Courtney Ramey may be the best pro prospect on the team but he’s being outperformed by three other guards. Once Ramey starts playing like late 2019 season Ramey, how does one stop three shooters and four interchangeable guards?
Ramey isn’t playing bad. He’s averaging 10.6 points and grabbing 4.3 rebounds. But he’s not shooting well from the floor (40.2%) and he’s not lighting up from 3-point land (27.3%) all this coming while tied for second at 97 in shot attempts. There’s a lot of shooters and scoring options on Texas. If you’re going to shoot closer to the 30s and fail to reach the 30s from distance, then Texas isn’t getting all it can from what should be an explosive offense that is currently No. 76 at Kenpom.
But if Ramey finds the next gear like Coleman did — 51.3% from 3-point, 47.4 from the field, 4.9 assists to just 2.2 turnovers, 13 points per game and 76.9 percent from the line on — Texas will continue to build on its 9-1 record.
Another thing Texas could wish for this Christmas? How about getting to the free throw line more than 12.7 times a game? If you want a comparison, Texas has been to the free throw line 127 times this season. West Virginia has been to the line 243 times. OSU 202 times. Kansas 212 times.
1. No. 1 Kansas (9-1)
NOT THE OBVIOUS ONE: Kansas needs to shoot better from 3-point range to lock itself in as the National Championship favorite. But since Kansas doesn’t shoot many 3-pointers, it’s not the most dire thing KU should want.
Kansas is starting to figure the two-big lineup out, but if KU is going to play two centers — and David McCormick, who scored 28 against Kansas City on Saturday, is starting to consistently hit jumpers which is scary — they need to not just win the rebound war, but dominate it.
What’s the point of playing two non-three-point shooters if you’re not controlling the boards?
Kansas out rebounded the two best teams it has played this season by a combined 18 boards (by 10 against Duke and eight against Dayton) but it’s also been close in other games. And it’s taken two games against drastically undersized opponents to bump Azubuike’s rebound average to 8.1— it was closer to five before last week. And that five number is where McCormick is at. Silvio De Sousa is a little more than three rebounds a game.
Point out that Kansas could rebound better is nitpicking, but that speaks to how good Kansas has been this season.
There’s a lot of reasons why the rebounding numbers don’t jump off the page. Kansas, which is ranked 91st nationally in rebounding at 38.6 (tied with four other teams), is second in the nation in field goal shooting percentage at 52.9% and shoots 60.8% from 2-point. This leads to the eighth-highest scoring numbers in college basketball.
Kansas makes a lot of shots, which has an impact on the rebounding numbers. Kansas is getting 28.4 defensive rebounds a game. That’s still just 51st in the country. Offensively, Kansas is tied with a bunch of teams at 187 nationally with just more than 10 rebounds a game.
Who knew that a team starting a 7-footer and 6-foot-10 inch forward would struggle on the boards?