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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

Self pays freshman Jackson a major compliment

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
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Freshman phenom production under Bill Self has been something of a contentious topic. Many fault the coach, who has won one national title and 12-straight Big 12 championships, for not developing one-and-done talent to their fullest potential during their single-season stays in Lawrence. Cliff Alexander and Cheick Diallo are Exhibit 1-A and 1-B for this argument in recent years.

Whatever outside criticism there is (Andrew Wiggins did go No. 1 overall just 2 years ago, after all), Self isn’t shying away from hyping the latest freshman with big expectations to come to KU. When asked who the greatest athlete of all-time is at the school’s annual Tradition Night last week, Self had a simple, if tongue-and-cheek, response.

“I’ll say Josh Jackson,” Self said of the the 6-foot-8 shooting guard ranked No. 1 in his class, according to Lawrence Journal-World.

With others answering with the likes of Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali, it’s pretty fair to say Self was playing to the crowd with the answer, but it’s still telling that he was willing to deliver such a sound bite, even if it was before a welcoming audience. Self didn’t try to seriously depress expectations for Wiggins, a player Jackson is often compared to, and it looks like he won’t for Jackson as well.

Jackson, though, won’t have the burden Wiggins had as there’s one of the country’s best backcourts in Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham to help shoulder the workload for the Jayhawks.

 

ACC non-commital on HB2 stance

John Swofford
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With North Carolina unwilling to rescind their controversial so-called bathroom bill, the NBA has withdrawn its All-Star Game from the state this year and numerous high-profile music acts have canceled performances as a result.

The ACC is declining to join them with a hard-line, or really any, position.

“We don’t want to damage our league with any premature decisions,” commissioner John Swofford said on The David Glenn Show. “We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The ACC, of course, has quite the presence in the state with North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest all in the Tar Heel State. Swofford’s comments are sure to draw the interest of the LGBT community, which has roundly been critical of the bill, which requires people to use the bathroom which corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, and has recently been active in college athletics, opposing the Big 12’s potential inclusion of BYU in its expansion plans over concerns of the Church of Latter Day Saints school’s honor code.

North Carolina’s bill has also drawn the eye of the NCAA, which is requiring potential championship sights to provide information on local anti-discrimination laws.

One of the loudest voices in the ACC, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, has come out against the law.

“It’s an embarrassing bill,” Coach K said last month.

The Champions Classic renewed through 2019

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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The Champions Classic is back, baby!!!

On Wednesday, the four schools that participate in the event — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State — announced that they have signed deals to extend the life of the doubleheader for another three years.

This is terrific news. The Champions Classic is always the best early-season event of the season, an annual double-header that always ends up putting together two of the best non-conference games in packed NBA arenas. This year, it features Duke, the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, squaring off with Kansas, who is a consensus top three team with the No. 1 freshman in the class, Josh Jackson, on their roster, in one game.

The other game? Kentucky, the third consensus top three team nationally, going up against Tom Izzo and Michigan State, who will be, at worst, a top 15 team in the preseason polls.

So yeah, we’re going to get a pair of sensational basketball games in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15th. MSG also just so happens to be the best arena to watch a great neutral site basketball game.

It’s going to be awesome.

There’s only one possible way to make it better: turn it into a two-day event, with the winners squaring off for the Champions Classic title the following night.

Make it happen.

Anyway, here’s the schedule:

Nov. 14, 2017 (United Center, Chicago)
Kansas vs. Kentucky
Duke vs. Michigan State

Nov. 13, 2018 (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis)
Michigan State vs. Kansas
Duke vs. Kentucky

Nov. 12, 2019 (Madison Square Garden, New York)
Kansas vs. Duke
Michigan State vs. Kentucky

Hartford makes smart decision to allow ‘Pancake’ Thomas transfer

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Hartford coach John Gallagher, AP Photo
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Another talented graduate transfer has hit the market.

Cleveland ‘Pancake’ Thomas — that’s a helluva name, isn’t it? — has been granted a release by Hartford and will be allowed to transfer to another program for his fifth season.

“Our biggest priority for Cleveland was that he graduate from the University of Hartford with a valuable degree,” Hartford head coach John Gallagher said in a statement released to ESPN after some speculation that Thomas wasn’t going to be given a release. “That happened. Beyond wishing him the very best, we don’t comment on other program’s players. We are very excited about our group and the upcoming season.”

The term “release” is needed here because Thomas, a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 18.9 points and shot 42.6 percent from three this past season, spent his first two years of eligibility at New Mexico. A graduate transfer exception is granted to any player making their first transfer after receiving an undergraduate degree. But since Pancake had already transferred once, he was only eligible to apply for a graduate transfer waiver, which the school he is leaving must support.

Remember the saga of Todd O’Brien? He tried to leave St. Joseph’s to spend his fifth-year at UAB but made headlines everywhere when Phil Martelli wouldn’t let it happen? That’s because O’Brien had started his career at Bucknell and needed Martelli to support the waiver.

Gallagher could have done the same to Pancake.

He made the right decision not to — Martelli has enough coaching cache to withstand the onslaught on criticism he received, I’m not sure that is true for Gallagher — even if it will result in Thomas playing elsewhere, hence the cold-hearted nature of that statement.

Anyway, Thomas never averaged more than 3.9 points at New Mexico, so while he’s a tantalizing prospect for programs that are dying for perimeter depth and shooting, this isn’t exactly a kid that’s going to launch himself into the NBA Draft’s first round by jumping up to a higher level.

Shawn Forrest named assistant coach for Jankovich at SMU

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 22:  Head coach Larry Brown (L) and associate head coach Tim Jankovich of the Southern Methodist Mustangs look on during the team's game against the Kent State Golden Flashes during the 2015 Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on December 22, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Southern Methodist won 90-74. The game marks Brown's return from a nine-game suspension.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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DALLAS (AP) Shawn Forrest has been named an assistant basketball coach at SMU, his third school since the end of last season.

Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich announced Forrest’s hiring Tuesday.

Forrest spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Western Kentucky before head coach Ray Harper resigned. Forrest was named a UTSA assistant in May, but two weeks later left for Louisiana Tech before the unexpected opening at SMU.

Jankovich was SMU’s associate head coach before the abrupt resignation last month of Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. Forrest fills the open assistant spot created on the staff when Jankovich was promoted to head coach.

Before Western Kentucky, Forrest was an assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, Arkansas State and Florida A&M.