Pistol Pete courtesy of Oklahoma State Athletics

Conference Catchup: Best Cowboy up if you want to beat Kansas

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Big 12 Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Kansas

Yep. Again. You may feel like one of these other Big 12 programs is about due to win the league, but this sure isn’t looking like the year to bet the ranch on it. Jeff Withey has become a force majeure under his own basket, and Ben McLemore is the enfant terrible who collects outlet passes and embarrasses his elders any chance he gets. They’re such an effective one-two punch that I had to speak in tongues to do it justice. Surrounded by steady, capable upperclassmen like Travis Releford, Kevin Young and Elijah Johnson, the dynamic duo doesn’t even have to do it all.

Contenders: Oklahoma State is coming on fast and strong, with a super-solid nucleus of Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte. Gallagher-Iba’s going to be a miserable place for opponents to visit this season, and quite a few will want to roll up the welcome mat when the Cowboys take to the road as well. It’s not just about offensive fireworks, either. The Cowboys are playing elite-level defense as well.

Kansas State is rolling in their first season under Bruce Weber, but we’ll hold off on getting too excited about that just yet. Baylor needs to locate a little defense to go with a high-powered offense, but they’re very much in this race. Iowa State seems to be lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike.

Biggest Surprise: Kansas State

We’ve all come to expect some pretty uneven results from Bruce Weber, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that his Wildcats were chosen to finish fifth in the league after he took over for the hastily-departed Frank Martin. So far, he’s wisely played to his team’s strengths, keeping them in the top-25 of defensive efficiency and taking offensive opportunities as they come. Michigan and Gonzaga were able to crack the code, but Florida was not, and the Wildcats carry a national ranking into the new year.

Biggest Disappointment: Texas

It’s popular to lay blame for the Longhorns’ deficiencies on the NCAA, for not letting Myck Kabongo play most of this season. That seems a bit naive. Great as Kabongo is as a point guard, shouldn’t Rick Barnes — who’s coached in the Big 12 since 1998 — be able to get a little more out of the talent he’s accumulated in Austin this season? The guy used to be able to win 20+ games with Dogus Balbay and a spool of baling wire.

Player of the Year: Ben McLemore, Kansas

McLemore’s situation last season had to be galling to Bill Self. He made it to the national title game with one of his best players sitting out a season. Bygones are bygones, however, and now Self has a nominal freshman who spent a year getting his house in order and stepped on the court ready to dominate this season. McLemore can drive and dunk or splash a three, making him exceptionally hard to guard, and he creates his own opportunities on defense, swiping 1.2 steals per game. This may be his only season in Lawrence, but it’s bound to be a memorable one.

Best Freshman: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

I know. That’s two freshmen. But they’re both worthy of a nod. Smart caught the nation’s attention with this stat line against NC State: 20 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, 4 blocks. The only team that’s really slowed him down since is Missouri State, by being so inept that Travis Ford decided to sit Smart for half the game rather than humiliate the Bears any further. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the McLemore/Smart battles coming our way this season.

Three Predictions

  • Texas will bounce back. The offense is struggling, granted. But Texas is playing lights-out defense, coming in third nationally in defensive efficiency according to Kenpom. That includes a DI-best perimeter defense. All it will take is for one or two things to start clicking offensively, and this team will be a threat.
  • TCU will win a single league game. Trent Johnson will start his first season in the Big 12 off with a win over Texas Tech, then proceed to lose every game thereafter. What the Big 12 is, the basketball Horned Frogs ain’t ready for.
  • Hardin-Simmons will wish they had asked for more money. Baylor travels to Kansas on January 14, then hosts Oklahoma State on the 21st. In-between, they’ll paste the tar out of the poor, frightened Hardin-Simmons Cowboys of DIII for no apparent reason except that they can. I’m with Harten – can’t we just end these shenanigans?

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Kansas*
2. Oklahoma State*
3. Kansas State*
4. Baylor*
5. Iowa State*
6. Texas
7. Oklahoma
8. West Virginia
9. Texas Tech
10. Texas Christian

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR POWER RANKINGS: Denzel Valentine claims the top spot

Denzel Valentine
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1. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: I mean, is this really a surprise for anyone at this point?The kid is averaging 19.9 points, 8.9 boards and 8.6 assists and shooting 42.6 percent from three. He has two triple-doubles where he scored 29 points. His “off night” came when he went for 17 points, six boards and five assists in a win over Providence. And he’s doing all this as Michigan State has climbed their way into the top three. This decision was not difficult.

2. Kris Dunn, Providence: He was the best player in the country entering the season. He’s probably still the best player in the country at this point in the season; his fall from No. 1 has less to do with him than it does what the other guy has done this season. Dunn’s number are about what you would have expected this season — 19.0 points, 6.7 assists, 6.1 boards, 3.7 steals — but what solidified him in this spot was what he did down the stretch in the win over Arizona, notching 11 points and two assists as the Frairs used a 15-7 run in the final 4:30 to win.

3. Michael Gbinije, Syracuse: There hasn’t been a more surprising team in the country than Syracuse this season, and their best player has been the former Duke transfer, Gbinije. Through the 6-0 start for the Orange, he is averaging 19.7 points, 4.2 assists and 2.8 steals while shooting 51.6 percent from three on a team that is relying on the three-ball to win them games. He played his best ball last week during the Battle 4 Atlantis, where he led the Orange to the title with wins over UConn and Texas A&M. The Orange look like they are the real deal this year, and Gbinije’s emergence as a full-fledged star at the point guard spot is the biggest reason why.

4. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: We saw how good Ulis is when he went for 18 points, six assists, four boards, two steals and no turnovers in the win over Duke in the Champions Classic. But we saw just how valuable he is to this Kentucky team on Monday night when he sat out with an elbow injury. The Wildcats and 15 turnovers and eight assists while struggling to put away Illinois State at home. With point guards, you don’t usually understand their impact until they aren’t available..

5. Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen cooled off a bit last week after his torrid start to the season, “only” averaging 18.0 points, 5.0 boards and 3.5 assists as the Blue Devils rolled over Utah State and Yale. On the season, he’s posting numbers that are positively J.J. Redick-ian: 22.5 points while shooting 48.6 percent from three. If he wasn’t atrocious when Duke lost to Kentucky at the Champions Classic — their biggest game of the season — he might actually be the Player of the Year at this point.

6. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield has lived up to the hype that he had entering the season, averaging 22.0 points and 5.5 boards while shooting 52.4 percent from three to start the season. The Oklahoma star struggled in the win over Wisconsin, but he went for 30 points as the Sooners went into Memphis and knocked off the Tigers earlier this season.

7. Wayne Selden, Kansas: Is Wayne Selden — dare I say it — starting to live up to his potential? Through six games this season, the answer is, unequivocally, yes. He’s averaging 17.0 points, 3.0 assists and 3.0 boards. He’s shooting 58.6 percent from three. He was the best player for the Jayhawks in their come-from-behind win over Vanderbilt in the Maui Invitational. He’s playing with confidence. He’s playing like a go-to guy. He’s playing like the Wayne Selden that was supposed to show up on campus two years ago. If he can do this consistently, the Jayhawks are a different team.

8. Georges Niang, Iowa State: Iowa State is in a bit of an interesting situation. They’re rolling over their opponents, having beaten three high-major teams in their first five games, but their best win is probably over Chattanooga of the SoCon. In other words, they really haven’t been tested like, say, Kansas or Michigan has been. That said, Niang’s numbers under new head coach Steve Prohm are as good as they ever were under Fred Hoiberg: 16.8 points, 5.6 boards, 4.0 assists, 2.0 turnovers with shooting splits of 51.6/41/2/92.9. We should still be in a holding pattern with Niang — and the Cyclones in general — until we see them play some stronger competition, but the early returns on the Prohm era have been terrific.

9. Ben Simmons, LSU: Look. I get it. The Simmons hype train was out of control in the first week or two of the season. And while the numbers that he’s putting up are insane — 16.8 points, 15.0 boards, 5.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks — he’s doing it on a team that hasn’t beaten anyone, lost to two middle-of-the-pack power conference foes and just fell at Charleston on Monday night in a game that Simmons shot 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers. That said, he’s still one of the three best players in college basketball and he’s going to be the first college player taken in the draft. He still deserves to be on this list, but that will eventually change if his — and LSU’s performances — don’t.

10. Isaac Haas, Purdue: Haas may be a strange name to have on this list because so few people have heard of him. He’s a 7-foot-2 sophomore that only stepped into the starting lineup this season because A.J. Hammons was in Matt Painter’s doghouse, but he embraced the role and made it his own. On a team that’s winning because of their dominating front line, he’s been the best of the bunch: 15.0 points and 6.5 boards while shooting 75.6 percent from the floor and 73.7 percent from the foul line. Here’s the kicker: he’s doing all of that in just 19 minutes per game! He’s averaging an insane 31.6 points-per-40 minutes! He’s going to come back to earth eventually, but for now, let’s celebrate how utterly dominant the big man has been.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Maryland/North Carolina highlights ACC/Big Ten games

Marcus Paige
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GAME OF THE DAY: No. 2 Maryland at No. 9 North Carolina, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Marcus Paige makes his season debut as these former ACC rivals match up as top-ten ranked opponents for the first time since 1999. The return of the senior guard for the Tar Heels gives them more consistency when it comes to perimeter shooting and Paige should help North Carolina’s spacing. Maryland gets a great early-season road test as they’ve had to come from behind late in a handful of games early this season. The Terps remain unbeaten at 6-0 as Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon has looked good and sophomore point guard Melo Trimble has played well.

CBT’s Rob Dauster is covering this game and will have more on it tonight.

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 11 Purdue at Pitt, 9:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

Both teams enter this one undefeated as the tough and balanced Boilermakers give the Panthers a legitimate test. Sophomore center Isaac Haas has been tremendous for Purdue and he’s complimented by senior center A.J. Hammons and freshman power forward Caleb Swanigan. Michael Young and Jamel Artis are off to big starts for Pitt, who hasn’t been tested much in their 4-0 start. This home game gives Jamie Dixon’s team a chance to prove they’re for real before ACC play begins. Purdue will likely be without senior guard Rapheal Davis, who is recovering from a sprained MCL.


  • No. 8 Villanova stays within Philadelphia and travels to Saint Joseph’s as they try to stay unbeaten against the 4-1 Hawks. Josh Hart is having a great season and the Wildcats look good early.
  • Ohio State has really struggled early this season with three losses, but they have a big chance to correct things at home against No. 10 Virginia. The Cavaliers are playing at a faster pace this season, but their defense has still been very good. The Buckeyes have lost three straight games, including home games to UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech.
  • It will also be the season debut for Cheick Diallo tonight as No. 4 Kansas hosts Loyola (MD) in their return home from a title at the Maui Invitational. Wayne Selden is playing tremendously and we’ll have to see if his hot shooting continues.
  • No. 5 Iowa State is trying to remain unbeaten as they play at home against North Dakota State. The Cyclones return as champions from the Emerald Coast Classic as their offense is rolling.
  • After an impressive showing at the Puerto Rico Classic, No. 21 Miami lost at home to Northeastern and has a tough road game against Nebraska. Pinnacle Bank Arena will be load and the Huskers are unbeaten at home this season as Andrew White has stepped up nicely.
  • Other ACC/Big Ten Challenge games going on include Michigan visiting N.C. State and Northwestern playing at Virginia Tech.


  • Wofford at Georgia Tech, 7:00 p.m. (ESPN3)
  • Richmond at Florida, 7:00 p.m. (SEC)
  • Oakland at Georgia, 7:00 p.m. (ESPN3)
  • UMES at Georgetown, 7:00 p.m.
  • UT-Arlington at Texas, 8:00 p.m. (Longhorn)
  • Northwestern State at Arkansas, 9:00 p.m. (SEC)
  • Louisiana Tech at Memphis, 9:00 p.m. (CBSSN)
  • Arkansas State at Missouri, 9:00 p.m. (SEC)
  • Seattle at Cal, 10:00 p.m. (PAC12)