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.

VIDEO: Presbyterian’s Toss for Tots night earns technical foul for charity

Presbyterian Sports Information Dept
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Presbyterian College held an cool and unique fundraiser this week.

In a game against Toccoa Falls, the Blue Hose held what will now be an annual Toss for Tots event. It was simple: after the first basket of their game on Thursday night, fans in attendance were asked to throw a stuffed animal onto the court, with every stuffed animal earmarked for a local elementary school.

Presbyterian ate the technical foul for the cause:

In total, 108 stuffed animals were “donated”.

The program had partnered with Bailey Elementary School, where there are 103 students. On Friday, the team delivered every student at the school one of the stuffed animals for Christmas. Head coach Dustin Kerns told NBC Sports that the team spent some times with the kids today as well, reading to the team and putting a smile on their face.

“Proud of our team,” Kerns, who is in his first year with the program, said. The win against Toccoa Falls was the fifth in a row for the Blue Hose, the first time the program has accomplished that since going to the Division I level. They are not 6-5 on the season after winning five games a year ago. “It was fun seeing out program give back.”

Presbyterian Sports Information Dept
Presbyterian Sports Information Dept

Rape charges will not be filed after last year’s incident in Kansas basketball dorm

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The Douglas County District Attorney’s office will not file sexual assault charges stemming from a report that a 16-year old girl was raped nearly a year ago in the Kansas basketball dorm.

“After an exhaustive review of all available reports, evidence and testimony, our office has determined there is not sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a sexual assault occurred,” District Attorney Charles Branson told the Lawrence Journal-World. “Unless additional evidence or reports come to light there is insufficient evidence to prove a crime was committed.”

What’s more, a suspect in the investigation was never actually identified, the paper reported. All five witnesses in the rape report were members of the men’s basketball team. The incident allegedly occurred in McCarthy Hall, which is a dorm where 40 Kansas students live, including all members of the men’s basketball team.

No. 8 Kentucky maturing, more challenges ahead for freshmen

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari hasn’t hidden his frustration about the learning curve of his latest group of talented freshmen.

And while the No. 8 Wildcats are starting play better, they’re bracing for more challenges ahead.

Kentucky has struggled to put away opponents such as Utah Valley, Vermont, Troy and Harvard, efforts that players and Calipari acknowledge have contributed to a perceived lack of national respect. On the other hand, their lone loss — a 65-61 setback to Kansas — showed their ability to compete with college basketball’s heavyweights.

“It was one of the big games they got to see,” sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel said. “The feeling and high intensity of the game, people watching, the fight in a big game like that, it really started to hit. Some players really started to get rolling off of that.

“We’re starting to get better as a team, individuals are getting better and we’re trending upward and trying to stay on that path.”

Kentucky (8-1) has begun running away from opponents, a promising trend it hopes to continue against upcoming Power Five conference foes.

Saturday’s home game against Virginia Tech (9-1) opens a daunting year-ending stretch for the Wildcats that includes next weekend’s matchup against UCLA in New Orleans; their annual in-state rivalry showdown against Louisville on Dec. 29; and their Southeastern Conference opener against Georgia on New Year’s Eve.

Though Calipari still hopes February will reveal Kentucky’s true strengths, he’s eager to see how the Wildcats stack up against the Atlantic Coast Conference Hokies, who lead the nation in scoring at 96.2 points per game and rank second in 3-point shooting at 47 percent.

“They have three or four guys that can absolutely make 3s,” Calipari said Friday while listing other Tech strengths. “They’re looking for layups and kicking it out for 3s and they’re getting to the line because of it.

“They’re not afraid. They go on the road in big games. Their home games are craziness. This is plugged into our schedule at a time where we need to learn about us, and we will.”

After a busy November without much practice time, Kentucky has welcomed a lighter December schedule that has allowed the Wildcats more time for workouts and to build chemistry.

The Wildcats have a long way to go, but games such as last week’s 93-76 win over Monmouth are encouraging for Kentucky fans.

Besides continuing their solid shooting — the Wildcats rank 22nd at nearly 51 percent — redshirt freshman guard Hamidou Diallo (23 points) and forward PJ Washington (20) posted career scoring highs against Monmouth. Kentucky also succeeded with a smaller lineup and has been effective playing a zone defense, which Calipari disdains but has used because of his team’s length.

“They’re as long as anybody in the country,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said of Kentucky. “We’ll have to work really hard to get the same shots we’ve been getting.”

Kentucky remains short-handed with freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt (foot) and guard Jemarl Baker (knee) sidelined by injuries. But the Wildcats appear to be developing depth.

They faced Monmouth without sophomore forward Sacha Killeya-Jones (sprained ankle) before starting guard Quade Green left in the second half after being poked in the eye. Both will be available against the Hokies and return knowing that the bench can fill the void after it combined for a season-high 27 points.

Granted, Monmouth is not a barometer for success against the likes of Tech, UCLA or Louisville. But considering Kentucky’s early struggles, any growth is welcome.

“We think highly of ourselves as a team,” Gabriel added. “I think we deserve more credit than we’re getting, so we’re going to go out there and try to earn it.”

Arizona State rising fast beyond the desert

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State has taken college basketball by devilish hurricane, running and gunning its way into the national consciousness while igniting an often-blase local fan base.

Even the Sun Devils’ rivals down south have taken notice.

“Bobby Hurley, he’s en route right now to be one of the coaches talked about for national coach of the year because of what he’s done with their program,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of the coach of his biggest rival. “He’s played a tough nonconference schedule. It shows some guts to play who they play. Their results speak really clearly. They might be underrated where they’re at right now.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, at least not yet.

The Sun Devils were expected to be better in Hurley’s third season in the desert. They returned three senior guards and finally got them some front-court help with the addition of Romello White and De’Quon Lake.

Kodi Justice, ASU’s 6-foot-5 guard, would no longer have to guard 7-footers. Arizona State would be better defensively and on the glass. The guards would not have to carry the entire load.

Even so, the Sun Devils were projected to be at the middle of the Pac-12, picked to finish sixth.

The big jump was supposed to be next season, when a trio of transfers will be eligible and could possibly lead the Sun Devils to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014.

This breakneck band of Devils spun the narrative forward a year early.

Playing with a confidence bordering on cocky and with an offensive freedom afforded them by their coach, the Sun Devils have pushed their way into the national spotlight.

They made a blip by beating Xavier, No. 15 at the time but now No. 10 in the AP Top 25 . Blew the Musketeers away, actually, turning a 15-point first-half deficit into a 102-86 rout with an onslaught of fast breaks and 3-pointers.

Arizona State next moved into the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2008-09, coming in at No. 20 after the win over Xavier. The Sun Devils climbed four spots the next week.

The catapult launched last Sunday: Arizona State 95, No. 2 Kansas 85. At Allen Fieldhouse.

One of the biggest wins in program history led to another bit of history: A No. 5 ranking this week, ASU’s highest since reaching No. 3 in 1980-81. The Sun Devils even garnered the first No. 1 votes as a program. Five of ’em, actually.

Now Arizona State is 9-0 and being mentioned as a possible national-title contender. Yeah, really.

“I knew the success was going to be better, but you don’t expect necessarily when you look at a schedule to run the table up to this point, and beat the type of teams we’ve beaten,” Hurley said. “So you just appreciate it and then you kind of move on and get ready for the next battle.”

Arizona State’s success starts with its quartet of fearless guards, turning Arizona State into “Guard U.”

With carte blanche from Hurley to shoot from anywhere at almost any time, they’ve gone from carrying the load last season to ferrying the Sun Devils closer to college basketball’s upper echelon.

Tra Holder has transformed himself from steady freshman to unquestioned, sometimes nasty senior floor leader. He scored 40 points against Xavier and leads Arizona State with 21.2 points per game. He also grabs 5.6 rebounds, dishes out 5.2 assists and won consecutive Pac-12 player of the week honors, a first by a Sun Devil since James Harden in 2008.

Shannon Evans II followed Hurley from Buffalo, had to sit out a season as a transfer and was solid as a junior, averaging 15 points per game. The 6-1 guard had become go-to guy 1-A this season, second on the team with 19 points while matching Holder in assists. Big shots? He’s go those, too, including a clutch 3 to kill a Kansas rally in one of the loudest atmospheres in the game.

Justice plays with Pete Maravichian flair, has a range that seems to extend to the opposing team’s free-throw line.

Then there’s Remy Martin. The freshman guard is more spiced rum than cognac, playing with a confidence and intensity well beyond his years.

Martin treats irritation by the opposing team’s point guard as the highest honor, often nodding his bouncy hair in approval when he officially finds his way under their skin. He was the spark off the bench against Kansas, finishing with 21 points and five steals.

“They are now freed up to be who they are more,” Hurley said. “I think they would have shown that on a more regular basis last year if I had done my job a little better and sooner and gotten them some help.”

That help is here and the Sun Devils are running and gunning with it.

Follow John Marshall on Twitter @jmarshallap

Oklahoma State dismisses two players

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STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma State has dismissed junior Davon Dillard and freshman Zack Dawson from the team for failing to meet unspecified standards set by the program.

Coach Mike Boynton says he could not “make compromises in our core values when it comes to individual players.” Dillard and Dawson were suspended before the season for reasons the school has not disclosed. Dawson missed one game and Dillard missed the first five.

Oklahoma State (7-2) faces No. 19 Florida State (9-0) in Sunrise, Florida, on Saturday.