Texas Longhorns' Courtney Ramey (3) defends the ball from West Virginia Mountaineers during a game in Austin on Monday, February 24, 2020. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Men's Basketball

12 big things about Big 12 basketball: KU rises to No.1 but Baylor is still good; Huge week for Texas Tech

Posted February 27th, 2020

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Let’s a take a look at the landscape of the Big 12.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike, left, dunks the ball as Baylor forward Freddie Gillespie, right defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Ray Carlin)

12. Kansas and Baylor play an epic game, KU wins

Even as Baylor nearly overcame a 7-point deficit in the final minutes to cut the lead to 1-point, and had a chance to send the game to overtime (which I think the Bears might have won considering KU’s foul troubles), I kept thinking this:

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I’m surprised how much KU controlled his game.

The final score won’t show that, but Kansas led somewhat comfortably for most of the second half and Udoka Azubuike just kept dunking.

Baylor would make a big shot to keep the lead to about five points, never letting KU pull too far ahead, but Kansas always answered to keep the score between five and 10 points.

This wasn’t so much a back-and-forth game. This was Kansas leading by three possessions with five minutes to go.

Baylor made a pair of 3-pointers to cut the lead late, because that’s what great teams do. I thought it would be Kansas who would need to rally like that.

Obviously the way Kansas won, with Azubuike scoring 23 points and grabbing 19 rebounds, only heightened what a lot of people thought was Baylor’s biggest weakness: inside game.

That’s a bunch of garbage. Azubuike can do that to everyone regardless of who is in the paint.

It’s the other flaw that Baylor has that was glaring. The Bears still seemed to settle too much on offense for mid-range jumpers. Meanwhile, when Kansas settles for shots, they’re settling by driving to the basket and taking layups.

I thought this game was good for both teams. Baylor needs this as practice for when it has to make adjustments while trailing in the tournament, because it hasn’t trailed much this season. Kansas needed this for Azubuike’s psyche. The big guy has had a lot of frustrating games this season, but when he’s on, there’s just little chance another team is winning.

READ MORE: ‘His growth is remarkable’: Opposing coach lauds KU basketball’s Udoka Azubuike

The way Kansas and Baylor followed this game was impressive. Kansas coach Bill Self tried to lower expectations for Monday’s game against Oklahoma State. All KU did was make 10 3-pointers and shoot 53.13 % in the second half to win 83-58– a score that is a little misleading since Kansas led 36 points with 4:37 left.

Baylor was just as good, thrashing last-place Kansas State 85-66, in a game where the Bears probably could have won by any number they wanted to, scoring 50 points in the first half.

We’ve seen this type of surge before from Kansas. The last time KU looked this dominant late in the season was 2016, when they reached the Elite Eight.

Texas Tech guard Jahmi’us Ramsey drives up court during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Ames, Iowa. Texas Tech won 87-57. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

11. Now that the game of the season has passed, what’s next big one?

On March 7, Baylor goes to West Virginia and Texas Tech host Kansas. I expect both teams to be tied for the Big 12 standings and I think Baylor, unless something crazy happens, wins the league outright.

Texas Tech is just as impressive at home as Baylor and Kansas are. The Red Raiders have demolished teams in Lubbock. Baylor won there, but that was before Baylor had been ranked No.1 for five straight weeks. Something tells me that game would have been different if Baylor had a bigger target on its back at the time.

The target is always big on Kansas’ back, and the Red Raiders were very close to winning in Allen Fieldhouse.

Meanwhile, West Virginia doesn’t matchup well with Baylor. Their guards just get exposed too much. And we’re already seeing how the two-big lineup isn’t working for WVU, and that’s not good because WVU’s wings and backcourt players aren’t as good as their two frontcourt centerpieces.

While I do think Baylor doesn’t lose again until the Big 12 tournament, the Bears’ final Big 12 week is pretty difficult with Texas Tech at home before the West Virginia game. That Baylor-Texas Tech game was a brutal and physical game, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Texas Tech won in Waco.

10. The league as a whole is down, how much can we trust the two top teams

Kansas and Baylor are very likely to get No.1 seeds and the biggest complaint you’ll hear– I’m just warning you– will be that the Big 12 was weak.

If Baylor and KU can win all their games between now and the March 7, when both are on the road, then they should be sho-ins for No.1 seeds.

Both are worthy in advanced metrics and eyeball tests and if they weren’t beating the average teams by 10 or more points every time out, you’d have a case that their resumes are misleading.

These teams play great defense. They are efficient on offense. Kansas’ two non-conference losses are by three points. Baylor right now has only lost twice.

I think you can trust both of these teams in the tournament despite the strong records built by playing a lot of average teams in the Big 12.

Can we trust Texas Tech to play like it does at home and against bad teams in the tournament?

I think we can, though it’s always difficult to tell when Texas Tech lacks a true point guard running the offense. What overcomes that is Texas Tech’s ability to splash in 3-pointers and the continued development of Kevin McCullar, who grabbed 11 rebounds and scored six points against Iowa State last weekend. Texas Tech is 9-6 in the Big 12 and six of the four losses are to the other best teams in the league and road losses to a confusing TCU squad and a senior-laden OSU team.

However, one thing that is becoming comical is something every announcer has said for the last three weeks during Red Raider games: “No one wants to see this team in March.”

They’re well coached, they have a  star scorer, but they’ve lost nine games and some of those losses haven’t been close, like on Tuesday to Oklahoma. Texas Tech will put the fear of god into a No.1 seed if they receive a No. 8 or No.9 seed.

But they have to get to the Round of 32 first.

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9. Too late for Texas and the tweet of the week?

I and most of college basketball wrote Shaka Smart off last week following a blowout, lifeless loss to Iowa State and then, in a win, playing in front of a mostly empty gym the following game. A blowout victory against Kansas State, a game that Texas nearly went scoreless for most of the final seven minutes but still won by double-digits. Then they had a truly dominating win against a crumbling West Virginia squad.

Texas has perked up a bit.

I’ve been pretty consistent the last few weeks that it feels over at Texas with Smart but have been hedging by adding there’s always a chance the Longhorns could turn it around. It just felt unlikely. Something crazy would have to happen.

It’s happening to a degree.

READ MORE: Golden: Shaka has Texas still breathing ahead of Saturday’s pivotal matchup in Lubbock

In the preseason I ranked sophomore guard Courtney Ramey as a top 10 player in the league. I was very wrong because this has been a mostly forgettable season for the former top 50 recruit who jumped on the scene at the end of last season.

The last several games Ramey is playing like the guy I thought he would be. He’s averaging 20.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and in the last two games has shot 62.5% and 64.3% from the field.

I’m not the only one that noticed:

 

There’s no sense in playing the “would of, should of” game with Texas. Unless there’s $10 million riding on it, and for one athletic director, there is.

Glass half full: there are a lot of good things that could happen next season if Texas just rolled it back, landed McDonald’s All-American Greg Brown III and went from there.

Glass half empty: We’ve written this before about Smart’s Longhorns and nothing ever changes.

Before Texas fans start to think — and you’d have to ask them if they think it’s a good or bad thing– that a late run by Texas would save Smart’s job, the attendance probably really matters.

The Frank Erwin Center holds about 16,000 people. The arena has been half-full, officially, for the last two home games. Unofficially, It didn’t seem like more than 8,000 people showed up. The public address announcer has invited fans down to the lower seats.

Does a win in Lubbock and Norman — the next two games– mean Texas sells out the finale against a bad Oklahoma State team?

The point is that fans have checked out on the program and not even a two-game winning streak and a top 25 opponent could muster more than 8,500 fans on Monday.

Baylor guard MaCio Teague (31) attempts a shot in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas State, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/ Jerry Larson)

8. Will the conference be back next year to usual standards next year?

I don’t think it will. 

First, there’s always attrition that happens to good teams, so saying all the players who could return to Baylor and Kansas will be back is unlikely. We know Devon Dotson is likely gone. I doubt Jared Butler will sit out the testing period for the NBA. Seniors Azubuike and Freddie Gillespie are graduating.

If Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell return along with Tristan Clark, who is further removed from last season’s knee injury, and Mark Vital are back, we’re talking about a preseason top five team next fall.

Self seems pretty convinced that Marcus Garrett is back next year– calling him next year’s point guard following the road win at Oklahoma in January– and it seems likely that David McCormick is back for his junior year along with a handful of other players. Kansas has three players redshirting this season.

Texas Tech should be a monster with or without– probably without– Jahmi’us Ramsey. The Red Raiders should return Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards and several of their young players this season. Even if Ramsey leaves, Tech is replacing him, Chris Clarke and T.J. Holyfield with its highest rated recruiting class ever (No.11 in the nation at 247 Sports), anchored by McDonald’s All-American Nimari Burnett.

So yeah, there’s the makings of three top 10 teams in next year’s preseason polls.

Iowa State, Kansas State and TCU could have some issues. So could Oklahoma State even though Cade Cunningham and the No.9-ranked recruiting class is coming to Stillwater.

Oklahoma will need Brady Manek to return for a senior season. West Virginia could be great or could be losing Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe.

Texas, as always, is the wildcard here. The Longhorns don’t have any seniors or any obvious NBA players. Unless someone is graduating early or transfers out, everyone is back and there could be a McDonald’s All-American coming in Greg Brown III, but they could also be rebooting the program.

What has made the Big 12 strong in recent seasons is the 9th-place team didn’t feel much different than the 3rd-place team and that’s probably not the case next year.

Another thing that factors in here is Kansas, Oklahoma State and TCU all being involved in NCAA investigations. I just don’t see how Bob Bowlsby wouldn’t step in and tell the NCAA that banning 30% of the league from postseason play in the same season would be catastrophic to the league’s margins. I’m about 75% sure KU won’t be in the NCAA Tournament next season, and that’s going to be a huge hit to the league.

Kansas, who has McDonald’s All-American Bryce Thompson arriving on campus, is the best basketball program in the league and will likely be a top 5 team in the country at some point next season if it’s eligible for the postseason. Still, Kansas is doing fairly well in recruiting (No.16-ranked class), so maybe it knows something we don’t in terms of punishment.

READ MORE: ‘I’m not afraid to say it’: Why OSU’s Mike Boynton feels that Kansas will win the NCAA title

7. Team Awards

With three games left in the Big 12’s regular season, let’s give out some annual awards:

Team of the Year: Whoever wins the league. I think it’ll be Baylor and the Bears deserve it as this is the best team Scott Drew has ever built.

Most ‘Wow’ Team of the Year: Kansas. While Baylor may be the team of the year, no team impresses me more than KU and no team wows me more on both sides of the ball. I just don’t think they’re going to win at Texas Tech on March 7.

Disappointing Team of the Year: Oklahoma State. I have explained this a few times the last few weeks, but OSU had the roster to make the NCAA Tournament. The Cowboys can use Isaac Likekele’s midseason illness as a legitimate excuse, but the three seniors didn’t perform all that well this season and OSU couldn’t overcome it. They’re disappointing because the team that slaughtered Oklahoma, beat Texas Tech at home and nearly beat Baylor in Waco didn’t show up enough. They were ranked in the top 25 in November.

READ MORE: OU men’s basketball: Kristian Doolittle does well despite broken nose, face mask

The Annual 2018 Oklahoma Award: The award given to the team that gets massively exposed in conference play after dominating in non-conference, that would be West Virginia. The Mountaineers were ranked in the top 10 at one point and are still ranked. They play well at home but are bad on the road. WVU is 7-8 in conference. They were 11-1 entering Big 12 play.
The Kenyon Martin Team of the Year: The saddest room I’ve ever been in after a game was my homeroom in eighth grade when, because teachers did this in Cincinnati, the teacher had the Cincinnati-St. Louis, Conference USA Tournament game on and Kenyon Martin broke his leg. It ruined No.1 UC’s season and everyone was shell shocked. The Bearcats were bigger than the Reds and Bengals from 1995 to about 2003 in my hometown.

This award is given to the team who suffered the worst luck in the league. The award this year goes to Iowa State. We’ll never know if the Cyclones were going to have a second half turnaround because Tyrese Haliburton got hurt. What’s frustrating is how well some of the other Cyclones have played without the star point guard.

If Solomon Young, Tre Jackson and Caleb Grill had been this good in January, maybe Iowa State would be closer to, at the very least, the NIT.

Most Annoying Team of the Year: TCU. You can’t beat West Virginia at home and then lose to Iowa State the next game and still expect anyone to take your tournament hopes seriously.

TCU head coach Jamie Dixon during a game against Texas Longhorns in Austin on Wednesday, February 19, 2020. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

6. West Virginia’s rotten offense

One reason why I take Texas’ recent surge with a grain of salt is that the most impressive win is against a West Virginia team that is playing like it doesn’t want to make the NCAA Tournament.

Of course they will make the tournament, so Texas should rightfully be happy about it.

WVU was 10-of-21 from the free throw line. It was 3-of-11 from 3-point– taking only 11 3-pointers when you’ve trailed for most of the game is a 3-D chess like comeback strategy. Its backcourt was already the Achilles’ Heel of the team, and it showed on Monday when it was neither good on defense and offense.

There were wide open shots their guards couldn’t make– an in-bound 8-foot jumper by Chase Harler stands out– there were times when WVU struggle to run the simplest of screen plays and on some possessions Derek Culver looked like an alien had taken his talent so he could be in the Space Jam sequel.

West Virginia’s offense is ranked 76th at Kenpom, so it’s no secret this team doesn’t rely on scoring to win. It’s ranked No.2 in defense. When teams are hitting corner 3-pointers and, well, 3-pointers everywhere else like Texas did, and the guards can’t stay in front of people, it’s bad.

Coach Bob Huggins blamed the way his team plays on the road. That’s true, they’ve gone 1-7 on the road this season.

But outside of a 97 point scoring output against Texas in January, they’ve more or less looked the same on offense.

This isn’t new. West Virginia wasn’t great on offense during the Press Virginia run, but it still had a terrific point guard running the show, which means the offense was always dangerous. This year, the guard play has really lacked and it’s not just scoring, it’s getting the ball into the front court and running simple screen plays.

Games to watch

5. Texas at Oklahoma, 8 p.m., Tuesday, ESPN/2/U

On Monday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi said Texas would have to split the road games to make the tournament. I’d say Texas has to win both to have a real chance. The blowout loss to Iowa State made it really hard for Texas to get an at large bid. Oklahoma is a tournament team, but the Sooners are tracking for a eight or nine seed. The Sooners quietly have as many glaring bubble blemishes as Texas. After beating Oklahoma by 17, the Cowboys followed up by being blown out in Allen Fieldhouse. Two different games, but it shows how bad OU’s loss was in the Bedlam series.

OU is in a no-win situation. If they beat Texas, it won’t move the needle. If they lose, the bubble grows. It’s why Saturday’s game is much more important for the Sooners because it gives them some breathing room if they do beat WVU and lose to Texas.

Pick: Oklahoma.

4. No. 2 Baylor at TCU, 1 p.m., Saturday, ESPN/2/U

Considering how confusing TCU’s resume and season is, it would not shock me if the Horned Frogs win this game.

Pick: Baylor.

3. Oklahoma at No. 20 West Virginia, 3 p.m., Saturday ESPN2

A win here by either team is a boon to their seeding. West Virginia needs to stop this two-game losing streak and Oklahoma may jump a line with a road win.

Pick: West Virginia.

Jan 12, 2019; Austin, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart (left) greets Texas Tech Red Raiders head coach Chris Beard prior to the game at Frank Erwin Center. Mandatory Credit: John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

2. Texas at No. 22 Texas Tech, 11 a.m., Saturday ESPN/ 2

Beating Texas Tech in Lubbock would be one of the four best wins any team in the league has obtained, but it’s also one of the toughest.

This isn’t K-State Texas is dealing with on the road.

This is a tenacious home team. One who is likely going to sell this game out. One whose fans are, at the very least, annoyed about how much Texas basketball is creeping into their minds.

I don’t think Chris Beard is going to be the Texas basketball coach in the near future.

And yeah, the upgrades Texas Tech is building are impressive and– a wink to the great Tech fans who called me out in Twitter last weekend (Texas Tech’s arena will be bigger than Texas’ arena in terms of capacity) but the money Texas is spending on its basketball program the next few years is a lot more than what Texas Tech is spending, which was last week’s point that I wasn’t clear with. 

Also, thanks for reading, Red Raider fans!. 

I expect Texas to experience the most hostile crowd its seen all season and expect Texas Tech to play really well. Mainly because as much as Texas has struggled over the years, I think it still means something to that program to beat Texas. Even with a trip to Waco two days later, no one is overlooking the Longhorns in Lubbock.

Pick: Texas Tech.

1.Texas Tech at Baylor, 8 p.m., Monday, ESPN

Everyone throws around “game of the year” too much in late February. Last week we actually had the game of the year in Kansas-Baylor.

This weekend we have Cage Fight of the Year. If this game is half as grueling as the first 57-52 contest, a Baylor win, then Big Monday will have some drama.

I think this game means more to Texas Tech, big picture wise, than Baylor. Unless Baylor really stumbles, its locked into, at the very least, a top-two seed. Texas Tech is by no means in danger of missing the tournament, but as fear inducing as a No.1 seed might view a possible eight-seed Red Raiders team on a Saturday or Sunday, Texas Tech would probably prefer not to play a Gonzaga, San Diego State or Dayton in the first week of the tournament.

A win here and we’re probably talking about Texas Tech moving from an eight seed to a six seed that could move up to a four seed if the Red Raiders complete next week’s gauntlet 2-0 with wins over Baylor and Kansas in the season finale.

Say Baylor goes 0-2 next week, the Bears still end the season with just four losses and at the most would finish with five total. That seems like the worst they could do is finish with a No.2 seed in the tournament.

But envisioning a complete Baylor collapse would be a tad disrespectful for this team, especially considering the game is Waco and would be a second home loss.

Also, Texas Tech can volley from looking like a Final Four team to a CBI team depending on location. Texas Tech needed to beat Oklahoma this week to improve its seed and the Sooners controlled that game nearly throughout.

This game has the chance to be the best of the day in all of college basketball because while there’s a chance this could be played in the 50s, there’s also a chance it could one haymaker 3-pointer after another.

Pick: Baylor.

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