12. The disappointing season in Stillwater
Trailing by 17 in the first half against No. 3 Kansas on Monday, Oklahoma State reeled off a 15-0 run and it looked like the Cowboys were going to push the Jayhawks at home. Gallagher-Iba was loud and it got even louder after Cameron McGriff hit a 3-pointer to force a KU timeout. After being dumbfounded by how inept and bad OSU looked while digging a 17-point hole, I was impressed by the run.
“Could this be the moment that changes things? Could this be Brad Underwood 2.0 — where OSU also started 0-6 in conference play and wound up making the tournament?”
Despite a walk-on playing in the first half due to suspensions and injuries, forcing the Jayhawks to a 7-man rotation, Kansas never gave up the lead before intermission. Then, the Jayhawks knocked the Cowboys out in the second, using a bevy of 3-pointers and a defense that looked like the best in the country.
It’s a little unfair to bury OSU after losing to the No. 3 team in the nation and the No. 1 team at KenPom.
But it’s the way they play, the way the seniors have played in particular, that make this OSU team so disappointing.
Where’s the Lindy Waters who was one of the most feared shooters in the country the last two seasons? He made a good pass that led to a layup on Monday, but that’s the only thing that was memorable. He’s shooting 33.7% from 3-point range, down from 44.8% a year ago. He’s shooting 76.6% from the line, down from 87.8% ago. He’s still the team’s leading scorer, but at 11.7 points per game, that’s not good enough for what this team needed.
But it’s not just him.
Disappointing seasons from McGriff and Thomas Dziawaga — who were expected to combine with Waters in building a sneaky top-five Big 12 team — have sunk this squad. Sure, Issac Likekele’s month-long illness led to some of those losses, but OSU shouldn’t be using this as a crutch.
The Cowboys take bad shots and have been slow to adjust. The only home Big 12 game OSU hasn’t lost by double-digits this season was a 7-point loss to No. 1 Baylor, but Mike Boynton’s team also blew a 9-point halftime lead in that game.
I’ve touched on Boynton this season, but I think it’s fair to again question his future in Stillwater after this season, because I don’t believe many other coaches in the league would fail with this roster.
But here we are.
It’s becoming clear that the biggest difference between Boynton and Texas coach Shaka Smart is that Boynton has the No. 2-rated recruit (and possible 2021 No.1 pick in the NBA draft) arriving on campus next fall. Smart does not.
11. Kansas’ 3-and-D
In the last few years, Texas Tech has claimed the title as the Big 12’s defensive kings, stealing that crown from Kansas. Texas Tech and Virginia traded the top spot on KenPom for defense last year, and it’s no coincidence that the two met for the national title. Defense is still very important. Kansas, which has the second-best defense in the nation this season, wasn’t even the top defense in the league entering the week — West Virginia was.
But what makes Kansas’ No. 1 KenPom ranking so impressive is it’s been done against the toughest schedule in the country, as opposed to No. 34 (West Virginia) and No. 99 (Virginia).
Udoka Azubuike’s leap as a defender is a big reason for the change. He’s finally unlocked his ability to protect the rim, and it’s changed plenty about Kansas’ defense. Another (and perhaps bigger) factor is Marcus Garrett, who is building a first-team All-Big 12 resume. He’s simply the best defender in the nation.
Another major development is that the offense is starting to find a rhythm. Ranked No. 8 on KenPom, Kansas’ offense is starting to see two 3-point specialists emerge. Against OSU, Christian Braun made 4-of-8 3-pointers and Isaiah Moss hit 3-of-8. Braun has been so good the last two weeks that forward David McCormick may not have a starting spot when he returns from his two-game suspension on Saturday against Texas Tech.
The smaller lineup has helped Kansas, who along with Duke is the only team to be top in offense and defense nationally, the last few games.
However, it’s also clear they do need McCormick to be a good offensive option if Azubuike is in foul trouble. When Azubuike returned for his senior season, McCormick had to know he would be forced to sacrifice the most. He’s helped himself by flashing the 15-foot jumper, but let’s not overthink it — McCormick is a center, and he might be more valuable coming off the bench, than starting.
Kansas is a pretty flawed team. Starting point guard Devon Dotson is the league’s leading scorer, but he doesn’t shoot it all that well from outside (29.1 percent behind the 3-point stripe). Guard Ochai Agbaji is extremely talented, but isn’t consistent on the offensive side and hasn’t really blossomed like some expected he would. Azubuike drags the entire team’s free throw percentage down, but even without his numbers, they aren’t very good at the line. Kansas turns the ball over a lot and doesn’t shoot well from the outside as a team.
So how have the Jayhawks only lost three games this season (with all three coming despite a wounded roster)?
The defense is great, and few teams have a duo that can attack the rim like Dotson and Azubuike.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this Kansas team is how much more it can grow between now and the tournament. Braun is already turning into a star, Tristian Enaurna has flashed a 3-point stroke, and Jalen Wilson — a freshman who was supposed to play the most minutes — may still be two weeks away from possibly returning. He could still redshirt. Throw in the return of suspended Silvio De Sousa in March, and few teams can grow like Kansas can.
10. Texas Tech’s big win
An overtime home loss to Kentucky last weekend could have derailed the Red Raiders’ season. No. 12 West Virginia was coming to Lubbock, bringing the nation’s best defense and a powerful frontcourt. A trip to Kansas is still to come.
You can make a case that Texas Tech needed to beat West Virginia more than any team in the league has needed a win this season. There was a distinct possibility that Texas Tech would leave Kansas with nine losses.
But in a game many thought would be a rock fight, Tech dropped 88 points on the nation’s best defense, never trailed, and won by eight. West Virginia, which dropped to No. 3 defensively after that game.
If we’re going to treat the Texas season like it’s been an utter disaster, it’s only fair to point out that the Longhorns and Red Raiders have the same amount of losses (7) and Tech has done that against a schedule ranked 59th while Texas has faced the 38th schedule.
If you were one of those upset about Tech dropping from the rankings this week, you should know the most losses any team has in the AP Top 25 is five. Wins and losses still matter in the age of advanced metrics.
That’s why an impressive 8-point win over West Virginia was so important. With three Big 12 losses, the Red Raiders’ hopes for a league championship aren’t dead. Remember, KU still has to travel to Lubbock, Waco and Morgantown before the end of the season. Baylor, though, has already won in Lawrence and Lubbock, and the Bears don’t travel to West Virginia until March 7.
It’s all set up for Baylor to win the league if the Bears can avoid losing to inferior Big 12 teams on the road, and good teams at home.
For Texas Tech, the West Virginia win is good reminder of how good this squad can be at full strength, and even if the Raiders lose in Lawrence, it’s still a group others won’t want to face in the tournament.
9. Sizing up the coach of the year race
Next week, the Big 12 will reach the halfway point of the season with nine games completed. Who’s the leader for coach of the year?
Sometimes, these conference awards honor the coach who’s had the best season as opposed to a more national trend of awarding a coach who lifted a team above expectations. I’m not going to go against the grain — Scott Drew has done the best job this season. He’s No. 1, he’s perfect in conference play and Baylor as won 17 straight games. It’s easy to forget that Baylor lost Mario Kegler a few weeks before the season.
If we’re picking coaches who are overachieving, well, you can try and convince me that Bob Huggins would be it, but I don’t buy it. I assumed West Virginia would be this good.
Outside of Huggins, Drew and Bill Self, most of the league’s coaches are either barely meeting expectations or struggling. It would be different if Iowa State wasn’t such an inconsistent team, playing like a tournament squad one day and a Division III team the next.
Keep an eye on Kansas State’s Bruce Weber. KSU was bad against Kansas, but then beat Oklahoma and cruised by West Virginia at home. That team has the experience and the coaching staff to flip the script in the second half and knock off anyone in Manhattan.
8. Sizing up the POY race
Next week, the Big 12 will reach the halfway point of the season with nine games completed. Who’s the leader for player of the year?
One round, Udoka Azubuike looks like the best player in the country, the next round he’ll score less than 10 points. But Azubuike, to me, is separating himself from the field and establishing himself as the league’s only first-team All-American player.
The problem with Baylor is … well, that there is no problem — Baylor’s a balanced team playing complementary basketball. Jared Butler can be the star one night, Davion Mitchell the next, and MaCio Teague after that. Baylor’s so deep, you could take away one of the guards, and the Bears would still have firepower.
Take Azubuike off the floor, like against Tennessee, and Kansas is different. Kansas was outscored by 13 points when he wasn’t in, but was outscoring Tennessee by 19 points when he was on the bench. Even when doesn’t score a ton, like against Oklahoma State on Monday, he still blocked five shots and grabbed seven rebounds.
He’s a force who’s the only player teams need a special gameplan for. As good as Tyrese Haliburton is, he’s not 7-foot, 260 pounds.
7. The All-Big 12 midseason team
Here are my first and second teams:
C: Azubuike, Kansas
F: Freddie Gillespie, Baylor
F: Kristian Doolittle, Oklahoma
G: Jared Butler, Baylor
G: Devon Dotson, Kansas
It’s tough leaving Haliburton out, but you can’t put him over Dotson, even if you want to penalize Dotson for missing one game and being hurt in another. He’s still the leading scorer in the league and Kansas is 17-3 overall. Every one of these players except for Doolittle should be in the running for POY. Jahi’mus Ramsey could make a case over Doolittle and so can Desmond Bane, but I think a senior is going to get this spot and Doolittle has been everything for OU.
C: Mark Vital, Baylor
F: Ramsey, Texas Tech
F: Marcus Garrett, Kansas
G: Bane, TCU
You can’t discount what Vital does even if he’s not really a center. Garrett isn’t really a forward, but he might be the third or fourth guy chosen if coaches were in a pick-up game scenario. Kevin Samuel deserves some nods, but I think winning teams should get awarded, and while you could keep Vital and Garrett off and put them as first-team all defense, I think it’s a cop-out. This league, for this year, has become one of defense, so why not have the best defenders among the top 10 players in the league?
6. Tweet of the week
Lines I wish I'd thought of… https://t.co/8Vqwdnrrex
— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) January 30, 2020
Games to watch over the next week
5. Kansas State at West Virginia, 1 p.m., Saturday, ESPN2
It was just a few weeks ago the Mountaineers went to Manhattan and lost by 16 points. Now here comes the return trip. It’s unlikely this will be a 35-point beatdown like the one WVU handed Texas during the last Big 12 home game, but I imagine it’ll get ugly. Unless Kansas State just has WVU’s number this season.
Matchup to watch: In Manhattan, Cartier Diarra was 8-for-14 from the floor, 4-of-6 from 3-point and scored 25 points. Jordan McCabe played just nine minutes. The shooting numbers and percentages were way above normal for Diarra, so I don’t expect another day like that, but given WVU’s now apparent defensive weakness — guards — it’ll probably swing the game.
4. Oklahoma at Texas Tech, 8 p.m., Tuesday, ESPN/ESPN2
Oklahoma just lost in Manhattan, so maybe it’s not a big game. But OU needs a marquee win to help its tournament chances. Other than the KSU loss, Oklahoma hasn’t blown many games it should have won and it hasn’t beaten anyone it should have lost to. If Tech beats Kansas, I can see TTU overlooking the Sooners a bit. However, if Tech loses in Lawrence, well, I don’t see that happening.
Matchup to watch: The biggest difference is Chris Clarke for Tech. I’m not sure who OU has to match up with him. I like the Brady Manek-T.J. Holyfield matchup as those two are the best stretch forwards in the league.
PICK: Texas Tech
3. Iowa State at Texas, 1 p.m., Saturday, LHN
I don’t know how Texas makes the tournament with a home loss to Iowa State. I don’t know how Iowa State makes the NIT tournament without beating teams like Texas at least once.
Matchup to watch: Does Texas have anyone capable of slowing down Haliburton? The Longhorns slowed TCU’s Desmond Bane, holding him to 12 points, and perhaps the combo of Courtney Ramey and Matt Coleman can.
2. TCU at Baylor, 3 p.m., Saturday, ESPN2
TCU’s home loss to Texas was puzzling as the Horned Frogs had beaten Texas Tech a week earlier at home — and I’m led to believe by large hoards of Texas fans that Chris Beard and the Red Raiders are demonstrably better than the Longhorns.
Maybe that’s unfair — Texas probably should have lost on Wednesday, because hitting one shot-clock buzzer-beater on a 35-foot 3-pointer is rare, but doing it twice is like winning the lotto. Still, TCU didn’t win any coaching awards for its final possession.
Here’s the thing: I know how good Baylor is. I’m still trying to figure out if TCU is a team that can win the games it needs to to make the tournament. The Frogs beat Texas Tech at home. But Texas Tech has seven losses. They haven’t played Kansas and were smoked by WVU in Morgantown. This team needs a marquee conference win as bad as Texas Tech needed one on Wednesday.
Matchup to watch: If TCU is beating Baylor, R.J. Nembhard is going to have to carry this team. He’s already starting to surpass Bane as the team’s most important player, but we don’t talk about him that way because he hasn’t had a moment yet.
PICK: I just don’t see it for TCU.
1.Texas Tech at Kansas, 3 p.m., Saturday, ESPN/ESPN2
Remember last year’s Tech-KU game in Lawrence? It was all set up for a Red Raider romp. Silvio De Sousa was ruled suspended the night before, and Marcus Garrett was basically ruled out for the next month. Meanwhile, Texas Tech was on its way to the Final Four.
What happened? Kansas socked Tech in the mouth, winning easily. Texas Tech doesn’t have the bodies to throw at Azubuike, but that’s really the only major matchup issue. Kansas loves to turn the ball over, and I expect more than 10 by halftime for KU. But Texas Tech settles for jumpers and bad shots a lot, and that’s how Kansas’ defense can control the game; it won’t let teams score easy baskets.
Matchup to watch: Whoever is running point for Texas Tech on offense and whoever has drawn Dotson will decide this game. Texas Tech has the defenders to put on the quickest guard in the country, but Dotson is also an excellent defender who will feast on poor ballhandling. I expect Garrett to defend Ramsey, but the Dotson matchup will decide the game.
PICK: All home teams picked, only 90% a cop-out for this week. Kansas.