12. Return of the Jayhawk
The Kansas Jayhawks are the 2020 Big 12 basketball champions. Whether Baylor joins them Saturday or not is up to West Virginia.
In a year dominated by the Bears, Kansas came on strong late, beat Baylor in Waco, avoided the road upset at Kansas State (and everywhere else) and won the league. A win in Lubbock will give KU one of the most dominant Big 12 title campaigns since 2010, when the Jayhawks went 15-1.
Kansas can thank TCU for making this weekend a tad anti-climatic. Had Baylor won in Fort Worth, followed by a win over Texas Tech it grabbed Monday, we’d be looking at fun Saturday.
The Jayhawks beat TCU 75-66 on Wednesday at home. Udoka Azubuike, nursing a sprained ankle, scored a career-high 31 points on Senior Night.
Kansas has, you may know this, won 15 of the last 16 Big 12 regular season championships. The one they didn’t win came last year when Azubuike missed most of the season, the best defender suffered an ankle sprain that lost him a month, a senior quit mid-season and the backup center was suspended for the year. On top of it all, Texas Tech had a historically great defense and Kansas State had its best basketball team since the Mitch Richmond era.
In other words, the perfect storm developed to kick Kansas off the league mountain top.
Kansas climbed back up with vengeance.
KU is probably going to have the conference’s Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year. Two players will be on the first team, a third player could be on the second team, two players will likely be first team all-defense.
The Jayhawks are one victory away from going undefeated on the road a year after going 3-6 away from Allen Fieldhouse in conference play. That game is against Texas Tech. I think the Red Raiders will win that game, but even if they do, going 8-1 on the road is impressive.
Kansas is the No. 1 team in both the human and computer polls. The Jayhawks were unanimous No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time since that 2010 team. The team that lost to Northern Iowa in the second round, and quite possibly is the best teams of the last decade to not reach the second weekend.
Now we’re going to do some soothsaying, so we’ll start with Kansas….
The future is: Kansas will be a No. 1 seed whether they lose twice down the stretch or not. If KU wins out, the Jayhawks will be the No. 1 overall seed and are already the tournament favorite in the eyes of people who live in Nevada and elsewhere.
Way-too-early guess on the tournament: There’s no reason, other than what we’ve seen similar Bill Self teams do in March, to not think Kansas is headed to the Final Four. The Jayhawks are certainly the safest team in the league to pick as a Final Four participant. They have no bad losses on the record and they only have three losses on that same record. They have improved over the season — like Isaiah Moss and Christian Braun becoming major contributors — and the advanced metrics have them as eighth offensively and first defensively entering this week.
What could go wrong? Other than the the FBI scandal overshadowing the next month as Kansas is expected to release its counter to the NCAA allegations this week? Well, you saw it Wednesday. TCU shot 60% from 3-point and Kansas had 13 turnovers. The turnovers ius why Kansas lost the first game of the season to Duke and the shooting is why Kansas lost to Baylor. The third bugaboo KU has, the free throw shooting, is why it lost to Villanova. KU’s free throw numbers are dragged down because of Azubuike, but it was the 80% shooter, Devon Dotson, who missed late free throws in that game.
11. Texas and the future of the Longhorns
The future is: Texas will make the NCAA Tournament if it can beat Oklahoma State on Saturday. Texas would be 10-8 in league play.
If they lose at home, then Texas is in a dicey situation despite road wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma. It’s just too many bad losses and with an 0-4 record against Baylor and Kansas. A home loss to OSU along with a 29-point loss at Iowa State and a 38-point loss to WVU would be glaring.
I think Texas will win this weekend and that’s what makes me so hesitant to pick Texas to win this weekend. Every time Texas has had a “must-win game” as a favorite, it seems to play flat under Shaka Smart.
This moment feels different than say 2016, when Texas had Kansas at home two days after beating Oklahoma. Texas entered the week at No. 54 at Kenpom and moved up five spots after Matt Coleman’s buzzer-beater against Oklahoma.
This game-winner from Texas was absurd 🤯 pic.twitter.com/w6jdj4ZASq
— Bleacher Report CBB (@br_CBB) March 4, 2020
When I wrote my preseason projections way back in September, I picked Texas as the third-best team in the league. The Longhorns are fourth now. If Kansas beats Texas Tech and UT wins, they’ll be third. I wrote that Smart was on the hot seat, but a tournament appearance wasn’t make-or-break for him to keep his job. He just needed to field a fun, competitive team that played smart. That, despite the winding road it took to get there, is happening. Even if Texas doesn’t make the tournament, the last five games should be enough to make Texas fans feel good about next season.
You’ve got to live in reality sometimes and change your opinion given the circumstances. When Texas lost 81-52 at Iowa State, it felt over for Smart. I wasn’t the only person who thought so. When Texas went to Lubbock and won on Saturday and then overcame the offensive doldrums in the final 10 minutes to stun Oklahoma on Tuesday, it felt and feels like a new beginning for this program.
Way-too-early guess on the tournament: Round of 64 exit. Let’s not get carried away here. I still don’t know if Texas can win a tournament game. The Longhorns do have quite a lot of blowout losses and the bench is thin. The last few years it seems like some teams haven’t put out their best effort to win the league tournament — like holding guys out for injuries. I wonder how Texas will treat next week if it feels good about where it is in the NCAA Tournament. It seems like a stretch for UT move off the 8, 9 or 10 line.
What could go wrong? Texas goes on terrible offensive droughts that nearly cost them against Oklahoma on Tuesday and on the road against Kansas State. Both times Texas led by multiple possessions in the second half, and both times Texas nearly lost the game because of a six- or seven-minute scoring drought. It’s why Texas has the bad losses they do have. The advanced numbers reflect that. Texas’ offense is ranked No. 148 at Kenpom.
10. Texas Tech and the future of the Red Raiders
The future is: Texas Tech is playing in the tournament this year, which is something that is now expected every year in Lubbock. That is the biggest change Chris Beard has brought to the Hub City.
Expectations are what make a school a “basketball/ football school.” Beard has pushed Tech into the realm of expecting not just to make the tournament every year, but to make tournament runs every year.
Tubby Smith deserves some credit for elevating the program and then handing the baton to Beard. Those were lean seasons with Billy Gillispie and Pat Knight before Smith and Beard. Now the school that has kind of always wanted to own the “best basketball school in Texas” belt is in position to do so for a long time. It’s hard to say Baylor owns it right now when Texas Tech was an overtime away from winning the national championship last year.
Way-too-early guess on the tournament: Round of 32 exit. It’s all going to depend on seed lines for me to think they can make the Sweet 16. Jahmi’us Ramsey may be an NBA prospect, but he’s not playing all that well — just two points in the second half against Baylor, 13 against Texas and none against Oklahoma — and neither is the team in general, hence the losing streak.
But a pair of mid-majors or high-mid-majors — or whatever the hell we call Mountain West and A-10 schools — could get No. 1 seeds. And Texas Tech would be the best team those squads will have probably played in months… if they meet in the Round of 32.
My hesitation is this: Outside of the Louisville win in December, Texas Tech has not won a lot of games against good teams. It has lost games in overtime to good teams. It has been close against good teams in regulation. The best conference win the Red Raiders have are home wins against Oklahoma and West Virginia. They can change all that this weekend against Kansas.
Even if Kansas sits out Azubuike and Devon Dotson, who appeared to hurt his ankle against TCU, the Jayhawks would be a signature win on the conference season.
That said, with the nation’s No. 10 ranked defense (following the Baylor game) at Kenpom, Texas Tech has a very good chance to make the Sweet 16. The offense is No. 49 in the nation, so it’s still an elite unit.
Still, if Texas Tech plays a No.1 seed in the Round of 32, you have to side with that No.1 seed.
What could go wrong: Against Baylor, one of the nation’s best teams and a projected No. 1 seed, Texas Tech committed 20 turnovers. Against Texas, it was 11 turnovers, Oklahoma was 14 and Oklahoma State was 15. Against Kansas, they only had nine turnovers. Teams turn the ball over, so 11 isn’t uncommon, but nine second half turnovers and Ramsey going 1-for-4 from the field is an example of what could go wrong in the tournament.
9. TCU and the future of the Horned Frogs
The future is: TCU feels like a NIT team to me. The Horned Frogs have home wins over Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia. But the Horned Frogs are 1-9 on the road. They don’t have a single notable win outside of the conference. Desmond Bane makes the NIT for third time in his career, we’re going to need to look up scoring records because he may be close to the modern-day NIT scoring record. At the very least minutes played record. I don’t know if that’s the biggest insult ever or an impressive compliment.
TCU can make the tournament because its resume is confusing. Would it really surprise anyone if they won the league tournament next week? Especially if KU and Baylor decide to find reasons not to play some players?
Way-too-early guess on the tournament: NIT champions. Why not?
Way-way-too-early look next season: R.J. Nembhard, P.J. Fuller and Kevin Samuel give TCU something to build around. The recruiting class, as of now, ranked No. 43 with three 3-star players. Unless they land a 4-star guy, you can expect the bulk of TCU’s rotation to built on returning players or grad transfers. Players transferring out will be something to watch, as TCU has seen way too many players leave under Jamie Dixon.
8. Oklahoma and the future of the Sooners
In the future: If there’s a sneaky tournament team in the Big 12, one that could easily be in the Sweet 16, it’s this Oklahoma team. The Sooners have shooters and experience and are playing well down the stretch. If there’s a team you’re not thinking of that can win the Big 12 Tournament, it’s Oklahoma, the No. 37 ranked team at Kenpom with the No. 68 ranked offense and No. 26 ranked defense. I’m not saying the Sooners are better pick than Texas Tech, but I think most people, and numbers say, that Texas Tech reaching the Sweet 16 wouldn’t be surprising. Oklahoma has as many flaws as the next Big 12 team and they can look boring average at times, but personnel wise, the Sooners have the make-up to be a good tournament team.
Way-too-early guess on the tournament: Oklahoma is No. 10 seed. More on that later. Round of 64 exit is the safe bet.
What could go wrong: The front court doesn’t exist and for as good as Kristian Doolitlle can be, he disappears in games at times. Brady Manek can go cold and Austin Reaves and Jamal Bieniemy make too many questionable plays and aren’t efficient players.
7. West Virginia and the future of the Mountaineers
The future is: West Virginia is going to play in the tournament this year, which is something it didn’t do last year.
It’s easy to forget how terrible WVU was a year ago because it seemed like more of a blip than anything else. WVU jumped out to such a strong start this season that it entered conference play as a lock to make the tournament if it could just be around .500 at the end of the 18-game stretch.
The Mountaineers are. Barely.
WVU has been reeling for weeks and now are lucky to be on the cusp of the tournament as something more than one of the play-in games. In fact, its strong non-conference season has the WVU as best seed after KU and Baylor.
Can they make a run? Before you shake your head “no,” remember that teams like WVU can be difficult to play in a weekend tournament game. Big 12 teams could scout and gameplan for future matchups during November and December and were ready to play the Mountaineers and most of them still lost at least once. A Thursday-Friday game will be a toss up the way WVU is playing, but on a quick turnaround, trying to figure out the best way to play a team with two good bigs, that can be difficult.
Backcourts win in March. And WVU’s backcourt could be the worst in the Big 12. It doesn’t have a reliable shooter. It doesn’t have a reliable playmaker. The Mountaineers don’t have a lot of guys who can consistently get the bigs the ball in the paint. But they can hit the boards like no other team in the tournament field.
Way-too-early guess on the tournament: Round of 32 exit.
What could go wrong: The bigs get in foul trouble, a team goes small and forces WVU into bad defensive matchups and West Virginia’s No. 70-ranked offense can’t keep up. WVU can win games with it’s rebounding and No. 3-ranked defense, but look at what its done against projected No. 1 seeds in Kansas and Baylor, and it’s not enough.
6. Baylor and the future of the Bears
The future is: Baylor will be a No. 1 or at the very least a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Monday’s game against the Top 10 defense in the country probably isn’t the best game to use when making a tournament assumption. I’ve been as high as anyone on this Baylor team, but that offense doesn’t do a lot of things easy.
What do I mean? Well, Baylor is shooting 35.4% from the 3-point stripe which is second in the league. But it averages just over 71 points per game, fourth in the league, which is one spot better than where its overall shooting percentage is ranked, fifth, at 42.9%. Baylor shoots below 70% from the free throw line.
Only looking at Big 12 numbers, Baylor’s scoring output, to be fair against a lot of highly-ranked defenses, goes down. Baylor is averaging 67.6 points and are shooting 34% from beyond the arc and 41.8% from the field.
You saw this against Texas Tech and Kansas. It’s just not an offense that can manufacturer high-percentage shots. Baylor isn’t very good when you force them to drive to the basket, and that’s what Texas Tech did on Monday.
When the 3-pointers aren’t there, what’s the next offense?
That’s really where Mark Vital becomes so important. Because he allows Freddie Gillespie to get open for the 10-foot jumper he has hit consistently. Vital sets screens and rebounds. He’s not a zero on offense like his scoring numbers suggest. You have to body him up or he’s going to get every offensive rebound– and you saw how much Baylor missed that offensive rebounding without him on Monday. Baylor is third in the league in offensive rebounding, and the two teams ahead of them have three best true big men in the conference, West Virginia and Kansas. Baylor averages 12.8 offensive rebounds a game, second only two West Virginia, who shoots a much worse percentage from the field on offense.
I think Gillespie has been the team MVP for Baylor, but when you force Baylor to play mostly four-guard lineups — essentially making them play its change of pace lineup the whole time — Baylor isn’t as good.
Defensively, though, Baylor played great outside of the league and against good teams — as did KU’s — so I trust its No. 4 ranking more than some of others in the league. Baylor can ride it to the second weekend.
Way-too-early guess on the tournament: Elite Eight.
What could go wrong: Baylor has gotten away offensively without a true playmaking guard all year and it can certainly make the Final Four with this group. Against Texas Tech and Kansas — games Baylor won and lost by just three — the offense struggles when the guards can’t get an open look and attacking the basket isn’t what it does well. But it can at times — Jared Butler had a big layup late against Texas Tech — it’s just not what Baylor is looking for on offense.
5. Oklahoma State and the future of the Cowboys
The future is: The National Invitational Tournament.
Way-too-early guess on the tournament: NIT Final Four. Why not?
Way-way-too-early look next season: The Cowboys will be the most talked about Big 12 team in the league next year. They have the possible No. 1 pick in the draft arriving on campus in Cade Cunningham. They have a very good point guard in Isaac Likekele likely returning to a good nucleus. They’ll lose three seniors who played a lot over the last few years and that will need to be addressed, but OSU could be a popular preseason pick.
I’m not 100% sure if they’ll be really good and I’m never 100% sure I know who will be back, but I’m 100% sure that big recruits bring big expectations. Coach Mike Boynton has no safety net next season. It’s a similar situation that LSU was when coach Johnny Jones brought in Ben Simmons and big time class. That team never jelled and Jones was fired after the season. Next year is sink or swim time.
4. Devon Dotson and the awards season
Dotson is the Big 12 Player of the Year. The moment Kansas locked up a share of the Big 12 championship, it became a foregone conclusion. Here’s the numbers:
Per 40, his averages jump, expect for 3-point shooting, quite a bit with a 20.9 ppg., 54.3% shooting, 2.5 steals and 4.6 assists.
Dotson might be the best NBA prospect playing in the Big 12 Tournament next week — it’s him or Ramsey at Texas Tech. Tyrese Haliburton is the best, but he’s not playing. I’ve written before about Bill Self’s history of point guard development. It’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame.
Dotson, skill-wise, is a guy who didn’t even develop that much at Kansas. He’s not grown as a shooter and still relies heavily on his athletic ability, but unlike so many — including No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins — he utilized that athletic ability better than any recruit I’ve seen walk into Kansas. Maybe No. 2 on that list is Azubuike.
I love the way he plays, very simple.
It’s like Isaiah Thomas — the ass-kicker guard of the Detroit Pistons who may be the best two-way “small guard” in basketball history — if Isaiah Thomas strapped rockets to his legs. It’s a throw back style. He doesn’t shoot very well. So what? He blows by guys and gets to the rim. If he was a four-year guard like Frank Mason and Devonté Graham were at Kansas, he probably leaves with a reliable jump shot.
3. Predicting the rest of the league awards
By the time the next column comes out, the league awards will have been announced. So here’s my best guess:
League awards/ Associated Press
DPOY: Marcus Garrett, Kansas
Sixth-man: Chris Clarke, Texas Tech
Newcomer of the Year: MaCio Teague, Baylor
Freshman of the Year: Jahmi’us Ramsey, Texas Tech
Coach of the Year: Bill Self, Kansas
First team All-Big 12:
Freddie Gillespie, Baylor
Kristian Doolittle, Oklahoma
Jared Butler, Baylor
Second team All-Big 12
Oscar Tshiebwe, West Virginia
Mark Vital, Baylor
Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State*
* This is the biggest one because he’s missed half the Big 12 season but would have probably been a unanimous first-team selection over Doolittle had he not suffered the season-ending injury.
2. Tweet of the week
Sorry, my man. I never care who wins. Texas has been good reality TV lately. 👍🏼🏀🇺🇸 https://t.co/5Gh6dzxmJ6
— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) March 4, 2020
I can’t believe Fran had to tweet this during a Texas game and not a Kansas game.
1. The Big 12 and the immediate future of the league
The last games
There are only five Big 12 regular season games left and the league tournament will start on Thursday next week in Kansas City.
Here’s a quick preview of this weekend’s final regular season games.
Baylor at West Virginia, noon, ESPN+
What it means: If we’re assuming Kansas and Gonzaga are near locks for No. 1 seeds regardless of what happens moving forward, Baylor’s loss to TCU opened the door for Dayton, Creighton, San Diego State and Florida State to enter the No.1 seed race. The big one to watch will be Florida State.
Baylor — who matches up really well with the shaky Mountaineers — can strengthen that No. 1 seed case with a road win. West Virginia started this week as a No. 6 seed according to Jerry Palm at CBS and Joe Lunardi had them as a No. 7 seed. I don’t think any team wants to be on the eight or nine line and WVU can avoid that with a win over Baylor.
Kansas at Texas Tech, 1 p.m., ESPN
What it means: With a win here Texas Tech can enter the Big 12 Tournament with the only home victory over the Jayhawks during Big 12 season. Kansas was so terrible on the road last year, that going undefeated would be one of the more impressive things any Big 12 team has done in a long time. Kansas has historically struggled in road games during the final weekend of the regular season after clinching the league title (Oklahoma 2015 and Baylor 2012).
This weekend sets up for that to happen again. Texas Tech is not winning games right now, but I wouldn’t say the Red Raiders are struggling to the point they’ve forgotten how to dribble. It’s hard to look at this losing streak and think Texas Tech is imploding when they’ve been in every game.
Plus, it’s senior night — Senior Day? — it’s Kansas and I’m not even sure how much Dotson and Azubuike play in this game and in the conference tournament.
Oklahoma State at Texas, 3 p.m., ESPN
What it means: Surprisingly the most important game of the day as Texas will not make the NCAA Tournament with a home loss to Oklahoma State.
Iowa State at Kansas State, 3 p.m., ESPN+
What it means: The most appropriate ESPN+ game of all-time.
Oklahoma at TCU, 5 p.m., ESPN2
What it means: The second most important game of the day. TCU can become a fringe bubble team if they go 7-2 at home in conference play. Only Kansas and Texas have gone into Fort Worth this year and won. Oklahoma entered the week on the No. 10 line according to Joe Lunardi.
Guess what? I think you’d rather be a No. 10 seed than an eight or nine. Why? Because it’s a similar first round game (7 vs. 10), and you don’t have to play a No. 1 seed in the second round. Given that No. 2 seeds losing first round games have become a normalized upset while a 16 over a 1 is still something that has only happened once, isn’t the No. 10 spot strangely more valuable?
I’m just asking questions here. I say this because after a home loss to Texas, I don’t know if a road win over TCU really moves them to the six line, which is obviously what OU is aiming for over the next week.