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College Basketball Conference Reset: The Big 12’s best players and biggest story lines

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Big 12.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Frank Mason III, Kansas

Josh Jackson is the Jayhawks’ top draft prospect, but Mason is their most important, and though 12 games, their most productive. He’s shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and dishing out 4.7 assists while quarterbacking an offense that ranks in the KenPom top five. He’s the Big 12 player of the year and on the short list for contenders for national player of the year.

ALL BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • Frank Mason III, Kansas
  • Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
  • Manu Lecomte, Baylor
  • Jo Lual-Acuil, Baylor
  • Johnathan Motley, Baylor

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big East | Pac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  • 1. The league is much better than anticipated: The thought coming into the season was that it was Kansas and everybody else. Well, the thought was it was like that more than it usually is in a league the Jayhawks have won 12-straight times. Instead, the league looks again as tough as any in the country and in some sense, maybe the deepest it has ever been. Baylor and West Virginia have established themselves as top-10 teams, but what’s maybe even more interesting is there appear to be no bottom feeders. TCU is vastly improved, and Oklahoma State looks for real. There doesn’t look to be an easy night on the schedule for anyone.
  • 2. The Scott Drew jokes have to stop: Drew has been among the sport’s favorite punching bags for some time. Whether it was questions about his high-level recruiting, his ability to turn talent to wins or his sometimes odd in-game decisions, there’s not much of a more mocked coach in the country. Rarely do his two Elite Eight appearances come into the conversation, and if they do, they’re qualified by an easy path. What about this Bears team, though? They’ve got one of, if not the, best resumes in the country with an undefeated record and wins over Oregon, Xavier and Louisville. And it’s not like Drew and the Bears are doing it with a ton of guys that topped recruiting boards. It’s more of a rag-tag group. Drew, and his guys, are getting it done.
  • 3. Press Virginia is maturing: When Bob Huggins pulled the handbrake on his program and quickly shifted directions into a full-court pressing team in 2014, it was unclear if Huggins would stick with it beyond that year or if it would even be sustainable. It’s looking like the Mountaineers are just starting to perfect it. Their turnover rate of 35 percent is by far the best of the Press Virginia era. Yes, it’ll come down in conference play, but that’s an astounding number.

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KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  • 1. Is there a contender to Kansas?: Probably not, right? Every year we ask this question and for the last 12, the answer has been no team has been good enough to knock off the Jayhawks. Tie them in some instances, yes, but never best. Baylor and West Virginia look like the real deal, but Kansas still would appear to be a tier better – plus they still play nine games at Allen Fieldhouse.
  • 2. Is the Big 12 still tops?: The conference has been the consensus top league in the country in recent years, but was expected to take a step back this season. The ACC might have more better teams, but it’s also got 14 members to the Big 12’s 10, which, as of Christmas day, all were ranked in the KenPom top-70. With Kansas carrying the banner, Baylor and West Virginia following closely behind and a host of solid squads, the Big 12 could once again be the country’s top league.
  • 3. How many bids?: Last season the league sent 70 percent of its members to the NCAA tournament. For that to be repeatable, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas Tech all have to prove to be more than just good-looking records against soft schedules and none of the other league’s expected dancer can take a step back. It’s doable for the Big 12, but also a tall task.
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Tarik Phillip #12 of the West Virginia Mountaineers talks with head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers against the Temple Owls in the second half during the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Tarik Phillip (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Oklahoma sits just a game above .500 with a 6-5 mark, but two have their losses have come in overtime, another two were by a combined seven points (and leading scorer Jordan Woodard missed one of those game) and then there was a 20-point loss to Wisconsin. If the Sooners can get Woodard back healthy, they’re good enough to compete for a top-half finish in the conference behind one of the country’s most underrated coaches, Lon Kruger.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Chris Beard has led Texas Tech to an 11-1 record in his first year in Lubbock, but the schedule is as soft and nondescript as a blanket of snow. Right now, the Red Raiders’ top KenPom win is Rice, which is ranked 112th. Texas Tech might be OK-to-good, but its resume doesn’t reveal much.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Since sharing the league title in his first season of 2013, Bruce Weber and Kansas State have seen their fortunes steadily decrease over the last three seasons. Oklahoma State snapping up Wildcat alum Brad Underwood after his dominating run at Stephen F. Austin only ratcheted up the scrutiny. Weber has the Wildcats at 11-1 this season, but they don’t have anything close to a “good win.” The win total looks nice, but it’s not really indicative of much growth.

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 10: Josh Jackson #11 of the Kansas Jayhawks dunks he ball against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the second half at Allen Field House on December 10, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Josh Jackson (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1.Kansas: The Jayhawks continue to be the toast of the league and look every bit the part of a national title contender. The backcourt of Mason and Devonte Graham has been superb and while the loss of Udoka Azubuike (wrist) hurts the front line, Josh Jackson has been as good as advertised.
  • 2. Baylor: It’s been one of the best stories this season in the country as the Bears remain undefeated with some serious wins to their name. Despite not having the five-star recruits that powered the early part of his tenure, Scott Drew might have his best team in Waco.
  • 3. West Virginia: Bob Huggins just got win No. 800 for his career and has the Mountaineers looking like another Final Four possibility for Huggs. West Virginia’s success over the last three years is proof enough their new style of play is sustainable against even the best teams in the country. The Mountaineers will be one of the most difficult matchups for any team on its schedule.
  • 4. Oklahoma State: The return from injuries of Jawun Evans and Phil Forte has allowed first-year coach Brad Underwood to hit the ground running in Stillwater. The defense is still a concern, but the Cowboys look to have a formula that works.
  • 5. Iowa State: The Cyclones have struggled some to adjust to a post-George Niang world, but their defense has been markedly improved and the offense figures to catch up at some point. Iowa State really needs Monte Morris to be a bigger scorer and its wings to shoot it consistently from deep.
  • 6. Texas Tech: It’s been a Charmin-soft schedule for the Red Raiders, but their offense – especially their offensive rebounding – will probably translate enough to the Big 12 to put them in a position to hear their name called for a second-consecutive Selection Sunday.

NIT teams

  • 7. Oklahoma: The Sooners enter conference play on a down note of three-straight losses, but getting Jordan Woodard healthy should help them steer out of the skid and finish above .500.
  • 8. TCU: Jamie Dixon’s first season at his alma mater is making the school look smart for bringing him back home, but the schedule has allowed them to pile up wins without too much resistance. An NIT bid would be a nice start to his tenure with recruiting picking up.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. Kansas State: The Wildcats have exceeded expectations through the non-conference portion of their schedule but they haven’t been tested at all, either. Their younger players will certainly be put to the test in the grinding 18-game conference slate.
  • 10. Texas: How about this? Seeing the Longhorns struggle so mightily in Year 2 under Shaka Smart is pretty shocking, especially given he’s bringing McDonald’s All-Americans to Austin, but the total lack of guard play has been crippling to Texas. The Longhorns can’t really shoot it, either, which in basketball is a problem, I’m told. It’s hard to see them being able to correct that enough to climb the conference ladder.

Texas’ Jones out with a broken wrist

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Texas may be without its leading scorer heading into conference play.

Longhorns coach Shaka Smart announced Monday that sophomore Andrew Jones suffered a hairline fracture in his right wrist and will be sidelined for the foreseeable future.

“Fortunately it’s not one of those injuries where he should be out for an extended long period of time,” Smart said at his news conference Monday, “but he’s going to miss at least the next few games before Christmas. They decided not to put it in a cast, which is good news.”

Jones suffered the injury last week against VCU when he took a number of tumbles to the floor. He’s averaging 15.3 points while shooting 52.4 percent from the floor and 43.2 percent from 3-point range.

“It’s a tough injury for us because he’s our leading scorer and has done a phenomenal job for us this year,” Smart said. “We’re going to need everyone on our team, not just guards, but everyone on our team to step up and take a little more responsibility.

“Your margin for error is a little smaller.”

The Longhorns, who are 6-2 with losses to Duke and Gonzaga, face Michigan on Tuesday, Louisiana Tech on Saturday and Alabama next week. Jones is certainly out for those games, and his availability for Texas’ first Big 12 games – Dec. 29 vs. Kansas and Jan. 1 at Iowa State – would seem to be in question.

“We don’t have an exact timeframe,” Smart said. “It’s really good news they didn’t put it in a cast.

“We’re hopeful that we can get him back in three, four weeks, but that’s not a set timetable.”

 

Coaches Poll: Villanova climbs to the No. 1 spot

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The new top 25 coaches poll is out, and the No. 1 team in college basketball is now Villanova.

Michigan State, who received 10 of a possible 32 first-place votes, came in at No. 2 while Duke, last week’s No. 1 team, fell to No. 4 with a loss to Boston College.

After winning at Kansas this week, Arizona State vaulted up to the No. 6 spot, while the Jayhawks fell to No. 12.

Here is the full coaches poll.

1. Villanova (22 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State (10)
3. Wichita State
4. Duke
5. Kentucky
6. Arizona State
7. North Carolina
8. Miami
9. Xavier
10. Texas A&M
11. West Virginia
12. Kansas
13. Gonzaga
14. TCU
15. Seton Hall
16. Virginia
17. Purdue
18. Notre Dame
19. Florida State
20. Tennessee
21. Baylor
22. Florida
23. Arizona
24. Oklahoma
25. Creighton

Villanova hops over Michigan State for No. 1 in AP Top 25

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Villanova’s unbeaten start now includes a No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 , while Arizona State is making a rapid rise into the top 10 under third-year coach Bobby Hurley.

After a tumultuous week in which unanimous No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Kansas lost, the Wildcats (10-0) earned 41 of 65 first-place votes to hop over Michigan State and reach the top for the third straight season.

Villanova and Michigan State were the favorites to take over at the top after the Blue Devils’ weekend loss at Boston College, though there was far less certainty for voters about who was now the nation’s top team. The Spartans (9-1) earned 19 first-place votes to climb from third to second, while the other five first-place votes went to the Sun Devils — who leapt 11 spots to No. 5 after Sunday’s win at Kansas.

Arizona State (9-0) is off to its best start since the 1974-75 season. Now the Sun Devils — who also have a win against Xavier this season — have their highest ranking since reaching third during the 1980-81 season.

Wichita State climbed three spots to No. 3, followed by Duke and Arizona State. Unbeaten Miami climbed four spots to No. 6, followed by North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Xavier to round out the top 10.

Villanova helped itself with an impressive win against No. 12 Gonzaga last week in New York, though the Wildcats had to fight to the final minute Sunday to close out a La Salle team that entered at 5-5.

“It’s always an honor to be ranked No. 1,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “It’s great for the Nova Nation and we appreciate the respect of the writers. We know it’s early, though, and we need to get a lot better.”

KANSAS’ FALL

The Jayhawks (7-2) slid 11 spots to No. 13 after two losses last week, the first coming against Washington in Kansas City, Missouri, before losing to the Sun Devils in Allen Fieldhouse.

SHUFFLE UP

Only two teams — No. 8 Kentucky and No. 12 Gonzaga — stayed in the same spot. Thirteen teams rose in the poll, while four of the seven teams that fell slid at least eight spots.

TOP RISERS

Arizona State’s leap was the biggest, though No. 11 West Virginia (9-1) moved up seven spots after beating then-No. 15 Virginia. No. 14 TCU (10-0) climbed six spots after a win against a then-ranked Nevada team.

Miami, UNC, No. 15 Seton Hall, No. 17 Purdue and No. 20 Tennessee all climbed four spots.

LONGEST SLIDES

While Kansas’ losses stood out, No. 22 Florida had the biggest fall of the week.

The Gators (6-3) slid 17 spots after home losses to Florida State and to Loyola Chicago — a game in which they led for all of 93 seconds. Florida salvaged a win against Cincinnati in the Never Forget Tribute Classic in Newark, New Jersey, to avoid a four-game skid.

No. 18 Notre Dame (8-2) fell nine spots after an upset loss to Ball State, while the No. 25 Bearcats (7-2) slid eight spots.

NEWCOMERS

There were three newcomers to this week’s poll, though one is more of a welcome back.

The list included No. 19 Florida State (9-0) and No. 24 Texas Tech (7-1), while Arizona returned to the rankings at No. 23.

Arizona’s 0-3 showing at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas made the Wildcats the first team in three decades to go from No. 2 in the AP Top 25 to unranked in a week. But four straight wins have the preseason Final Four favorite back in the poll.

SLIDING OUT

Minnesota (No. 14 last week), Nevada (No. 22) and Southern California (No. 25) all fell out of the poll.

1. Villanova (41 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State (19)
3. Wichita State
4. Duke
5. Arizona State (5)
6. Miami
7. North Carolina
8. Kentucky
9. Texas A&M
10. Xavier
11. West Virginia
12. Gonzaga
13. Kansas
14. TCU
15. Seton Hall
16. Virginia
17. Purdue
18. Notre Dame
19. Florida State
20. Tennessee
21. Baylor
22. Florida
23. Arizona
24. Texas Tech
25. Cincinnati

Expelled Yale captain has enrolled at Belmont University

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Former Yale basketball captain Jack Montague, who was expelled from the Ivy League school in 2016 for sexual misconduct, has enrolled at Belmont University in Tennessee.

Montague, who is still suing to be readmitted to Yale, complained in a court deposition last spring that he was unable to apply to other schools. He said Yale would not release his transcript until he paid a disputed tuition bill.

Karen Schwartzman, a spokeswoman for Montague, says Yale later released the transcript, allowing Montague to enroll at Belmont this fall. She says not all of his credits transferred and he will need two semesters to graduate.

He exhausted his basketball eligibility at Yale.

Montague denies the sexual misconduct allegations. No criminal charges were ever sought.

Yale’s attorneys have said the school and its officials acted appropriately.

The lawsuit, which also seeks monetary damages, is expected to go to trial next year.

Player of the Week: Tayler Persons, Ball State

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In a week where Jy Bowman put 30 on Duke, Tra Holder had 29 in Phog Allen Fieldhouse and Mikal Bridges popped off for 28 in Madison Square Garden, the Player of the Week this week was shockingly easy to pick.

Tayler Persons, Ball State.

And I know what you’re saying. “Who?”

That was my reaction, too, when I found out that Persons was the man that hit the game-winning 25-footer to give the Cardinals a victory at No. 9 Notre Dame on Tuesday. When he hit another game-winner against Valpo on Saturday, I knew who he was.

And when I realized that, in those two games, Ball State’s leading scorer had averaged 23.5 points, 5. boards and 4.0 assists in those two wins, it made sense.

If you’re going to hit the game-winning shot in the two biggest wins of the season for your team, chances are that you’re a pretty good player.

I do have some advice for young Tayler, however.

He left 1.5 seconds on the clock at Notre Dame and 3.3 seconds on the clock against Valpo. Next time, make the shot at the buzzer. It’s cooler that way, and you’ll probably get on Sportscenter.

THE ALL-‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • KY BOWMAN, Boston College: Bowman damn near had a triple-double on Saturday, finishing with 30 points, 10 boards and nine assists to lead Boston College to a 89-84 upset win over No. 1 Duke. His partner in crime, Jerome Robinson, was pretty good as well. He finished with 25 points, including a pair of massive threes in the final five minutes of the game.
  • MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova: Bridges has been having a terrific season, but he finally had his moment on Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic. Bridges went for 28 points and six boards, including an emphatic dunk, as the Wildcats knocked off No. 12 Gonzaga is fairly uneventful fashion.
  • TERANCE MANN, Florida State: Mann has been Florida State’s best player this season, and he was certainly their best player on Monday, when the Seminoles went into the O-Dome and knocked off their rival, Florida, by 17 points. Mann went for 25 points in that one.
  • TRA HOLDER, Arizona State: Holder had 29 points and seven assists as the Sun Devils went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and knocked off No. 2 Kansas, 95-85, and you can make the argument that it wasn’t one of his two-best performances of the season. That’s pretty good.
  • LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State: After going for 21 points and eight assists to lead the Shockers past South Dakota State on Tuesday night, Shamet had a career-high 30 points to help Gregg Marshall’s club come from behind to beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater.