Conference Catchups: Kansas doesn’t lack for challengers in Big 12

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)

The preseason pick to win Big 12 Player of the Year, Smart has done little to dispel that notion through 12 games. The sophomore’s raised his scoring average from a season ago to 18.0 points per game in 2013-14, and he’s shooting a higher percentage from the field (46.3%) as well. The three-point shooting (32.3%) could use a boost, but given all the other things that Smart does it’s difficult to argue against him at this point.

All-Big 12 First Team:

  • Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
  • DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
  • Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
  • Cameron Clark, Oklahoma
  • Melvin Ejim, Iowa State

Midseason Coach of the Year: Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State)

Lon Kruger (Oklahoma) would have a good argument as well, but the pick is the head coach of the league’s lone remaining undefeated team. Thanks to Hoiberg transfers DeAndre Kane and Dustin Hogue have slid right into the Iowa State rotation, and the presence of veterans Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang has helped matters as well. Can Iowa State win the Big 12? Rebounding will have a lot to do with that, but don’t ever underestimate “The Mayor.”

Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks

A team that has three losses remains the favorite to win the league? Yes, and there are two reasons why. First, Bill Self’s young Jayhawks have been tested more than any team in the country to date, as according to the computers they’ve faced the toughest schedule in the country. Secondly, as this group dominated by freshmen and sophomores get more comfortable with each other and what Self wants done they’re only going to get better (especially Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins). Kansas’ hands will be full given how tough the Big 12 is, but how can you bet against the program that has won at least a share of the last nine regular season conference titles?

And three more contenders:

  • That Oklahoma State of Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash is darn good, and in Phil Forte III they’ve got a very good marksman coming off the bench. But keep an eye on forwards Michael Cobbins and Kamari Murphy. If Oklahoma State’s to make a run at the Big 12 title, those two will need to come up big against the league’s best interior presences.
  • Iowa State will be heard from as well, with a couple reasons why stated above. Also of importance for Iowa State will be their perimeter shooting, with underclassmen Naz Long and Matt Thomas being two keys in that regard. And if DeAndre Kane can knock down threes at a consistent rate, opponents won’t be so willing to give him five feet of space on the perimeter.
  • Baylor’s right there with Kansas when it comes to picking out who has the deepest/most talented front court in the Big 12, with Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin leading the way. And Kenny Chery’s done a good job at the point through 11 games. But in order for the Bears to win the Big 12, Austin has to look to dominate.

Most Surprising Team: Texas Longhorns

Let’s be honest: a lot of us had Rick Barnes on his way out before practices even began. Well his young Longhorns have proven to be far more formidable than most people expected, with Jonathan Holmes being a tough front court leader and Javan Felix, Demarcus Holland and Cameron Ridley all showing signs of improvement. Not sure how much of a factor Texas can be in the Big 12 title chase, but it’s clear that this group isn’t going to simply lie down.

Most Disappointing Team: Kansas Jayhawks

This one’s tough, especially when considering just how tough of a schedule the Jayhawks have played to this point. But there have been issues, most notably the question mark at point guard. It looks as if Naadir Tharpe’s taken the strides needed to lead the way for the Jayhawks in Big 12 play, and if that remains the case the Jayhawks will be better for it. Another key for Kansas moving forward: Tarik Black has to snap out of his three-plus year habit of landing in foul trouble. He avoided that against Georgetown, and his presence on the floor made a big difference.

Most Important Player (in league play): PG Naadir Tharpe (Kansas)

Oklahoma State has Marcus Smart, Iowa State had DeAndre Kane and Baylor has Kenny Chery. Those are three strong point guards to contend with when looking to win the Big 12, which means that Tharpe will need to continue to take steps in the right direction. Over his last three games the junior has 18 assists and eight turnovers, and if he can get that ratio closer to 3-to-1 Kansas will be better for it.

Who will slide?: Texas

The Longhorns are off to a surprising 10-2 start, but it’s difficult to see them continuing that pace when league play begins. Texas is shooting just 43.9% from the field this season, and their offensive rebounding (grabbing nearly 38% of their misses) has helped the Longhorns make up for that issue. But will they be able to do so against the bigger teams in the Big 12?

Who is the sleeper?: Oklahoma

The Sooners have been without the services of sophomore guard Je’lon Hornbeak, who’s expected back at some point in January after breaking a bone in his foot a couple weeks ago. His return will give Oklahoma another scoring option on the perimeter, and with Clark and Ryan Spangler in the front court they’ve got two players to rely on inside. If the bigs can hold up in league play, Oklahoma has the potential to be the sleeper team in the Big 12.

New Power Rankings

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

Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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The Sweet 16 kicks off on Thursday night, and the games are going to be terrific.

Oregon-Michigan should be thrilling, Gonzaga-West Virginia is a fascinating contrast of styles and Kansas-Purdue features arguably the two best players in college basketball.

Oh, and then there’s Arizona-Xavier, with Sean Miller and Chris Mack doing battle.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (-1.5), 7:09 p.m. (CBS): So this run that Michigan on, is it a fluke?

Frankly, I don’t think that it is. Derrick Walton has been awesome for the better part of two months while Michigan’s perimeter shooters have always been shooters and the duo of D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner are legit. I honestly do not believe that the Wolverines are a team of destiny after the plane crash. They are just really good and a perfect roster for John Beilein to tinker with.

That’s why they’re favored on Thursday night. But here’s the thing … Oregon is pretty good themselves. Dillon Brooks is going to be guarded by a big man, which should be a matchup that Brooks can take advantage of, and Tyler Dorsey has been playing terrific basketball since the start of the Pac-12 tournament.

If you like small-ball, spread-the-court basketball, you’ll love this game.

PREDICTION: Michigan (-1.5)

No. 1 Gonzaga (-3) vs. No. 4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m. (TBS): On paper, I think Gonzaga should win this game. They have a good back court in Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins, a pair of talented point guards that have won a lot of games in their career. Gonzaga is also the best defensive team in the country. So if they don’t turn the ball over against West Virginia’s press and they make it difficult for West Virginia to score in the half court and get into their press, they should be able to win this thing, right?

Well, maybe not.

My concern with Gonzaga is game-pressure. They didn’t handle it well down the stretch against BYU in their one loss of the season, and I’m not convinced that they win that second round game against Northwestern if the officials don’t blow the goaltending call. How are they going to handle an endless wave of Mountaineers in their face?

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-3)

No. 1 Kansas (-5) vs. No. 4 Purdue, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): More than any other game this weekend, I’m fascinated to see how these two teams decide to try and play each other. Kansas has, essentially, one big man that Bill Self can trust, and he’s going up against a Player of the Year candidate in Caleb Swanigan and one of the best big men in the country at drawing fouls in Isaac Haas. Will Self double-team Swanigan knowing that Purdue may be more effective offensively when Swanigan can find shooters out of the double-team, or will he risk Lucas getting in foul trouble by trying to guard Swanigan one-on-one?

Then, at the other end of the floor, how will Purdue deal with the Kansas back court? Frank Mason III, the NBC Sports National Player of the Year, and Devonte’ Graham are a nightmare for anyone to deal with, let alone a team that struggles against penetrating guards and that lacks rim protection. It should be a fascinating coaching battle.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-5)

No. 2 Arizona (-7.5) vs. No. 11 Xavier, 10:09 p.m. (TBS): On paper, Arizona should be able to handle a Xavier team that doesn’t have Edmond Sumner or Myles Davis. That said, as we all know, Chris Mack and Sean Miller are very close and used to work together. Mack knows everything that Miller is going to do and vice versa. I think this game will be a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair that comes down to the final minutes.

PREDICTION: Xavier (+7.5)

Shayok and Reuter transferring from Virginia

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Virginia announced the departure of two players Wednesday.

Marial Shayok and Jerred Shayok will both transfer out of the program, the school said.

“Marial and Jarred informed me today that they are leaving the Virginia basketball program and are looking to transfer to other schools,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “I thank Marial and Jarred for their hard work and contributions to our program, and wish them success in the future.”

Shayok, a a 6-foot-5 junior, played 20.9 minutes per game last season for the Cavaliers, averaging 8.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor. The Ottawa native started 23 games in three seasons with Virginia.

Reuter played a minimal role for the Cavaliers, averaging just 10.8 minutes and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Wake’s Collins declares for NBA draft without hiring agent

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Wake Forest’s John Collins is entering the NBA draft but will not hire an agent and is keeping open the option of returning to school for his junior season.

In a statement Wednesday announcing the decision, Collins said he wants “to make an informed decision about what is best for my future.”

Collins is a 6-foot-10 forward who as a sophomore blossomed into one of the best big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was voted to the Associated Press all-ACC team.

He averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds, putting together a string of 12 consecutive 20-point games late in the season.

His progression was a big reason why the Demon Deacons earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Kansas State beat Wake Forest in the First Four.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Porter, Jr. will ask for Washington release

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There may be an overwhelming assumption on where Michael Porter, Jr. – and his father – will ultimately end up, but the five-star recruit is said publicly that he see his re-recruitment process through.

Porter, Jr. said in a teleconference Wednesday that he will ask for his release from Washington, and his father, a former Huskies assistant, has been offered a job at Missouri by new Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin.

“Right now I’m just trying to take it slow with my family and weigh my options,” Porter Jr. said, according to the Kansas City Star. “I plan to get my (national letter of intent) from Washington back and just go from there, not saying that I’m not going to Washington anymore, but I just want to get it back and weigh my options.”

The prevailing thought has been that the Porters will ultimately land in Columbia, where they have significant history.

Still, it would appear at least publicly that Porter, Jr., a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, will weigh his options in at least the short-term.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.