Where they stand in the Big 12: Tech is 3-0 and Kansas is 2-1 with two big losses

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Posted January 11th, 2019

When Iowa State bashed Kansas in a 17-point victory, I was ready to bookmark all the hot-take tweets from college basketball writers that declared Kansas wasn’t going to win the conference.

Kansas losing that game wasn’t KU’s end of the world or the streak. The Jayhawks had terrible losses  last season on the road to Baylor and Oklahoma State and even fell to Arizona State and Texas Tech at home. They still won the league went to the Final Four.

Sunday night when news broke that the league’s most sure-thing offensive player, Udoka Azubuike — Kansas’ massive center — was done for the season with torn ligaments in his wrist, there was no need to hunt down tweets from basketball writers about this being the first of many nails in the streak’s coffin. Because, unlike an early January road loss to a fantastic team, this injury will damage Kansas’ chances to not just win the league but potentially win tournament games.

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True that Azubuike wasn’t Kansas’ best player on either side of the ball. True he had already missed a handful of games that Kansas mostly won. I’d argue that he was not even the most important player for Kansas, that would be Quentin Grimes (I’ll explain that later). But when Azubuike is on the floor, the Kansas offense is different and better.

Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike (35) shoots during the first half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

That’s no longer the case. And the way Kansas played against Iowa State offensively — one of the worst offensive performances this decade for KU — it underscores Kansas’ biggest issue. Points are tough to come by with only one reliable offensive player (Lawson) on the court.

I’ll let the Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Self figure out how to win without Azubuike, but there have been moments when Kansas’ offense was dominant without the center. Take the second half against Wofford and the first 35 minutes against Arizona State as a great example. The offense is good enough to be No. 29 at Kenpom right now. 

Kansas was terrific at home against a good TCU team on Wednesday. The lineup was the same as Saturday but the rotation was different as KU burned the redshirt of Ochai Agbaji, younger brother of Texas volleyball standout Orie Agbaji. He was great (seven points, four rebounds and a block), Kansas pressed and won.

But Kansas can’t win the Big 12 if the offense can’t find easy buckets on the road against a league eight top-50 Kenpom defenses.

Here are 10 things about Big 12 teams after three games and before the first week of Big Monday play.

Big 12 standings:

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins calls a play during the first half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

West Virginia (8-7, 0-3)

The Mountaineers are a tough 0-3.

They led Kansas State in the second half by 21 points and lost on Wednesday.

They had Texas Tech on the ropes, led by as many as nine in the first half, and lost.

They played a competitive game that was anyone’s contest until the final minutes against Texas and lost.

The last two seasons the Big 12 has had a surprising fall-from-grace last-place team. Oklahoma and Texas two years ago and Iowa State last season. Those teams lost a lot of close games and so far that’s what WVU is doing. But I can see the makings of a good team, and even a better offensive team than the ones WVU had the last two seasons.

Bob Huggins has a lot to work with and Texas Tech winning in Morgantown is something that other teams who aren’t as good as Tech will struggle to do.

Another thing: Derek Culver has really jumped out to me in the three games I’ve seen in Big 12 play. The freshman from Youngstown, Ohio is averaging 15.3 points in Big 12 play and 12 points overall. He scored 17 against Texas and 17 against Kansas State — both road games.

Who’s coming up: Oklahoma State, Saturday; At TCU, Tuesday.

Oklahoma State (7-8, 1-2)

Students aren’t back on campus yet so I understand why arenas in Stillwater and Manhattan outposts looked so empty in in the midweek games. But it used to be different at Gallagher-Iba Arena. I seem to write this just about every year for OSU, but the Cowboys should be the conference’s second basketball school even if they love football more. Hank Iba is a legend and that program has a ton of history. It wasn’t long ago that GIA was second only to Allen Fieldhouse as the toughest place to play in the Big 12.

That said, what OSU did to Texas will be done again to other good teams because OSU has enough pieces to win a lot of home games and once students get back, it will be a tad tougher. OSU has played three games and pushed Iowa State for most of the opener and fell flat on the road in Norman in a 10-point loss. But while Texas’ loss to OSU looks really bad it won’t be the only team that Lindy Waters (19 points and 5-for-5 from 3-point) lights up in Stillwater.

Coming up: At West Virginia, Saturday; Baylor, Monday

Kansas State (11-4, 1-2)

The Wildcats may have had a season-changing win on Wednesday. A 21-point second half comeback against West Virginia erased my original idea of asking if Bruce Weber was back on the hotseat. But after the way Kansas State played at Tech in the second half and the way they played against WVU despite getting next to nothing from Makol Mawien, who was spectacular the previous game, I believe Kansas State can become the team I thought they would be in November.

When and if Dean Wade returns, this team will be even better. For now, Kansas State needs to find a way to play better in the first half, obviously. What’s strange is they played Texas even in the first half, and were terrible in the second in the opener. But they were terrible in the first half, but were awesome in the second half. Strange.

Who’s coming up: At Iowa State, Saturday; At Oklahoma, Wednesday

Kansas State guard Barry Brown Jr. (5) shoots over West Virginia forward Derek Culver (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Manhattan, Kan., Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Oklahoma (12-3, 1-2)

Oklahoma starting the Big 12 season 1-2  was expected with trips to Kansas and Texas Tech in its first three games. Not many teams will win in those buildings. Oklahoma was more competitive for the whole game against Tech and overcame a big halftime deficit to give Kansas a scare down the stretch.

Oklahoma has the makings of a good offense, and I trust that group more than maybe seven other teams because they have lots of scorers and seniors. But the Sooners have struggled with ball handling, 14 turnovers against Tech, and Christian James has cooled off in Big 12 play.

The transfer guards give OU two good scorers, but the true differences maker for them is Brady Manek. The Larry Bird doppelganger is like 5 percent the shooter Bird was, which means he’s still above average. His numbers have gone up without Jamuni McNeace playing a lot due to injury, but I expect Manek to have a Dean Wade like presence on the OU offense before the year is done. Not just a stretch-four, but a guy who can hit mid-ranges and score easily underneath the basket.

The thing I also noticed against Tech: OU was tired in the final 10 minutes. Give credit to Tech for that, but OU has a short bench and it haunted them against Tech.

Who’s coming up: TCU, Saturday; Kansas State, Wednesday

Baylor guard Makai Mason (10) looks to pass the ball against Iowa State in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Rod Aydelotte)

Baylor (9-5, 1-1)

Makai Mason is yet another player that highlights how great the transfers are this season in the Big 12. Perhaps the least heralded transfer in a league with Dedric Lawson, Marial Shayock, Matt Mooney and more, Mason, a grad transfer from *checks notes* Yale has been sensational. He was already one of the leading scorers at Baylor at 15.1 points per game but he was the reason Baylor beat a very good Iowa State team on Tuesday with 25 points.

That’s a win that changes what people should expect from Baylor the next two months. Baylor went to Fort Worth and nearly beat a team most, including me, expect to be one of the best in the league. A four-point loss to TCU is nothing to snicker about. And now we can put to rest an idea that Baylor doesn’t have a “star player.”

Mason may not finish All-Big 12. He won’t be an All-American, but there won’t be many games he’s in that he isn’t one of the four or five best players. He can score and he knows how to play the toughest position in the game, point guard.

Who’s coming up: Kansas, Saturday; At Oklahoma State, Monday

TCU (12-2, 1-1)

The race for Big 12 Freshman of the Year is intense. Between Derek Culver at West Virginia, Devon Dotson at Kansas, Jaxson Hayes at Texas and Tyrese Halliburton at Iowa State, it’s very crowded. But I think Kevin Samuel will wind up being the winner because he’s so damn hard to stop. He shoots 75 percent from the field, Kansas had no answer for him (84 percent from the field with 12 points) on Wednesday and he’s 6-11 with moves. 

Samuel, from Barbuda, is averaging only 8.5 points and 6.9 rebounds, but I see those numbers going up.

He’s a redshirt freshman so he should be a step ahead, but he’s going to wind up being the reason TCU wins a lot of games directly and indirectly. TCU has great shooters and now they have a post guy who can score at will. It’s why that despite Kenpom having TCU No. 33 on offense and third-highest in the Big 12, I think I trust that offense more than Iowa State (16) and Kansas (29) because of the easy points Samuel gets, the shooters and the best pure point guard in the league, Alex Robinson.

Who’s coming up: At Oklahoma, Saturday; West Virginia, Tuesday.

Texas guard Elijah Mitrou-Long (55) saves the ball from going out of bounds against West Virginia during an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in Austin, Texas. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
Texas (10-5, 2-1)

Watching the Longhorns get worked in the first half on Tuesday in Stillwater, I kept thinking one thing: why is Texas bad at rebounding? It makes no sense for the Longhorns to be the 8th-best rebounding team when they have the only post playing lottery pick in the league and start two traditional forwards. They also have athletes at the wing and guys on the bench like Royce Hamm who can all go get the basketball.

Yes, not having Jericho Sims is an issue, but those rebounding stats go back to when he was on the court and struggling. If Texas wants to be elite in the league, they can’t be a below average shooting team AND a bad rebounding team.

Rebounding is like good man-to-man defense: it’s an effort thing more than physical thing most of the time. The best rebounding teams have both. The worst have none. Texas has size, but when you hear comments from coach Shaka Smart about figuring out who wants to play, he’s probably talking about the boards… because the effort is there on defense and he has said he can live with missed shots. This Texas team should never ever be out-rebounded by OSU 38-30, a disparity that was even greater in the first half.

Who’s coming up: Texas Tech, Saturday; at Kansas, Monday

Iowa State (12-3, 2-1)

So predictable. So typical. “Just beat Kansas hangover Syndrome” takes down another team. Iowa State had no business losing to a Baylor squad they’re better than. And they could have won, but it’s tough to get things to fall your way when on the road and playing from behind in this league.

Here’s the main issue with the loss: Baylor is better than what we thought and Oklahoma State isn’t terrible, but both of those teams aren’t great. And both of those teams have lost a lot of games. Iowa State beat OSU, but trailed at halftime, lost a 12 point lead and was in a back-and-forth game in the second half. If Iowa State is struggling on the road in Waco and Stillwater, what’s going to happen in Lubbock?

I think Iowa State should be the best equipped team to win road games because they have a variety of different scorers, but so far that hasn’t been the case.

On Wednesday the Cyclones travel to Lubbock, FYI.

Who’s coming up: Kansas State, Saturday; At Texas Tech, Wednesday.

Kansas forward Dedric Lawson (1) reacts after hitting a three-point shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Christian, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Lawrence, Kan. Lawson scored 31 points in the the Jayhawks ‘ 77-68 win over the Horned Frogs. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

Kansas (13-2, 2-1)

After a terrible game at Iowa State, Kansas tried something new on Wednesday and we’ll see it more and more the next two months. Kansas pressed TCU. It makes so much sense to do so when a team isn’t great at shooting but has a lot of length, athleticism and defensive players.

If Kansas is pressing a lot this year, Marcus Garrett may runaway with conference defensive player of the year honors. He not only is Kansas’ best defender, but he becomes even more dangerous if Devon Dotson is guiding the ballhandler into a halfcourt trap with Garrett waiting.

It worked on Wednesday as Kansas forced the team with the best pure point guard, TCU’s Alex Robinson, into mistake after mistake. Garrett also made Robinson more-or-less a non-factor scoring-wise. I expect to see Kansas to press more now that the dream of playing two bigs and dominating on offense is kind of dead.

Who’s coming up:  At Baylor, Saturday; Texas on Monday

Oklahoma’s Kristian Doolittle (21) and Texas Tech’s Tariq Owens (11) reach out for the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Brad Tollefson)

Texas Tech (14-1, 3-0)

Iowa State’s demolition of Kansas seemed to vault the Cyclones past Texas Tech in the Big 12 hype machine until ISU lost to Baylor on Tuesday. Texas Tech remains the non-KU favorite. But Tech’s 3-0 start in league play has some blemishes. It’s been an up-and-down first three games of the Big 12 season but Tech did the most important thing: win. And win at home.

Here’s the warning sign: Against both West Virginia and Kansas State, Tech wasn’t good offensively, entering Tuesday ranking eighth with only West Virginia (9th) and Kansas State (10th) playing worse. Tech averaged 62.5 points while shooting 24 percent from three and 40 percent from the field. But the defense played spectacular in those games and Tech won.

This league will punish teams who can’t score on the road. West Virginia isn’t playing well and yet Tech barely squeaked by in the road opener. No one should be concerned about that. What was concerning is that after jumping out to a 14-0 lead and handing Kansas State its worst half of basketball the Wildcats will play this season, Tech let Kansas State get within a possession in the second half. It says more about Kansas State than Tech, but is it a warning sign for some troubles to one of the clear best teams in the league?

Tech wasn’t much cleaner in the third game against Oklahoma, a game the Sooners led by eight in the second half in Lubbock. The Red Raiders turned the ball over 14 times and while earth shattering bad, most of those turnovers were a result of bad decisions. Their defense forced the same amount, but that’s why the game was so chaotic and ugly.

Texas is not a good matchup for Tech’s offense, by the way, so a test is coming on Saturday.

Who’s coming up: At Texas, Saturday; Iowa State, Wednesday

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