2014 Big 12 Tournament Preview: This is going to be good

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If I could only watch one conference tournament this season, it would be the Big 12. That’s what happens when, barring an upset, all eight teams in the quarterfinals have a chance at playing their way into the Big Dance.

The matchups?

The juiciest.

RELATEDRead through NBCSports.com’s latest Bracketology

There’s No. 4 Iowa State and No. 5 Kansas State, two teams that are noted for being unbeatable on their home floors squaring off at a neutral site. No. 3 Texas, who came from nowhere this season to become an NCAA tournament team, takes on No. 6 West Virginia, who needs to make a run to the finals to have a shot at hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. If No. 7 Baylor can beat No. 10 TCU, the Bears will square off with No. 2 Oklahoma, with the best perimeter team in the conference taking on the team with the best front court. And if No. 8 Oklahoma State can get past No. 9 Texas Tech, they’ll take on No. 1 Kansas, a matchup that shouldn’t need explanation.

And that’s just the quarterfinals.

Did I mention they have great barbecue in Kansas City?

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews

The Bracket

When: March 12-15

Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City

Final: March 15, ESPN

Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks

On paper, Kansas is the most talented team in the Big 12, maybe the country. They have the two guys that will go top three in the NBA Draft in June (Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid), another lottery pick (Wayne Selden) and an all-Big 12 caliber role player that could end up being a first round pick himself (Perry Ellis). As you’ve come to expect from a program that has won ten straight Big 12 regular season titles, they’re loaded.

MOREWhere did Andrew Wiggins rate as an NBCSports.com All-American?

But there are two things that could derail a Big 12 tournament title. The first is Embiid’s back. It’s balky. He’s getting a second opinion on it in California and could very well end up sitting out until the NCAA tournament. He’s the defensive rock for a team that has not been consistently great defensively. The other is Naadir Tharpe. For the most part, Tharpe has been very good this season. But when he’s bad, he’s really, really bad. Kansas could end up playing Oklahoma State and Iowa State before the finals. They cannot afford Bad Naadir if Embiid isn’t playing.

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And if they lose?: Iowa State

As crazy as this may sound, the Cyclones actually had more Big 12 Player of the Year candidates than Kansas did. DeAndre Kane has been the best back court player in the conference, and Melvin Ejim has capped a terrific career with an All-American season. Throw in Georges Niang, one of the nation’s biggest matchup nightmares, and the Cyclones are good enough to make a run to the title despite being slotted into the No. 4 seed.

Other Contenders:

  • Oklahoma: The Sooners are better than anyone gives them credit for. The No. 2 seed in the bracket, Oklahoma spreads the floor and gets out in transition as much as anyone in the conference. Buddy Hield and Cameron Clark are as good of a 1-2 punch as you will find in the league, and yes, I do realize how loaded that statement is.
  • Texas: Remember when we all fired Rick Barnes back in October? Well, don’t look now, but the Longhorns finished as the No. 3 seed in the Big 12 tournament and drew a matchup with West Virginia in the quarterfinals. Texas wins with their defense and their massive front line, and on the nights that Javan Felix and Isaiah Taylor are shooting well, they’re dangerous.

Sleeper: Baylor

We all wrote the Bears off earlier this season, and rightfully so. They lost eight out of ten games at one point and looked like a sinking ship. But they closed the regular season with seven wins in eight games as Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson started to play better while Kenny Chery embraced his role as lead guard offensively. The issue with this group is always going to be on the defensive end, where they rank 95th in defensive efficiency.

Deeper Sleeper: Oklahoma State

I’m actually picking the Pokes to win the Big 12 tournament despite being the No. 8 seed that will have to beat Texas Tech, Kansas and either Kansas State or Iowa State just to get to the final. Here’s why: Marcus Smart is back to being Marcus Smart. He’s still flopping, but he cut down on his ridiculous threes and he cutback on some of those headlong drives into the lane. He’s playing like an actual point guard instead of trying to be Kobe Bryant. When he does that — when he allows Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash to be the go-to-guys offensively — Oklahoma State looks like the team that was picked in the top ten in the preseason. Oh, and in the last two weeks, they beat Kansas and came within a missed free throws from Phil Forte and a 25-foot three from Naz Long of beating Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Markel Brown, Oklahoma State: Le’Bryan Nash was a top ten recruit. Marcus Smart is, well, Marcus Smart. But Brown has been Travis Ford’s most consistent offensive weapon in Big 12 play.
  • Juwan Staten, West Virginia: It’s a shame that Staten plays in a league with DeAndre Kane and Smart because he’s been overshadowed. He had as good of a year as any point guard in the country.
  • Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield’s development into an all-Big 12 player is one of the biggest reasons that the Sooners are a top 25 team this season.
  • Marcus Foster, Kansas State: He wasn’t a top 100 player coming out of high school but Foster has been one of the nation’s best freshmen.

CBT Prediction: Oklahoma State over Oklahoma

Best Big 12 Tournament Memory:

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.

 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.